NASAA Notes: May 2018

May 2, 2018

Laura Kohler: The Arts Are Integral to Business Success

NASAA’s Creative Industries Briefing last month drew congressional staffers and arts advocates to Capitol Hill to hear firsthand accounts from prominent corporate leaders about the power of the arts to create business success. One of our speakers was Laura Kohler, senior vice president of human resources, stewardship and sustainability at Kohler Company. Her remarks described the high value the company places on creativity and innovation, and how that strategy energizes employees, boosts achievement and enhances Kohler’s bottom line. I hope you’ll be as inspired by Laura’s impassioned remarks as I was.

Remarks by Kohler Company Senior Vice President
Laura Kohler

NASAA Creative Industries Briefing
April 17, 2018, U.S. Capitol

Thank you for inviting Kohler Company to contribute to today’s discussion telling a story of the importance of art to this 144-year-old company, headquartered in Kohler, Wisconsin—one of the world’s strongest brands that employs over 35,000 people.

The arts are very important to me personally, as well as for Kohler Company. In fact, I am before you as a business executive with 25 years of experience who sits on the top team of a $6.5 billion company with an M.F.A., not an M.B.A. The value of the arts has been engrained in our company’s ethos, and we have been consistent advocates of elevating the importance of the arts in society through education, arts organizations and scholarships.

This is evident from the time our founder and my great grandfather, John Michael Kohler—with his creative and entrepreneurial spirit—took a hog scalder/water trough from his farm implement line, sprinkled some enamel powder on it, added four legs, and created our company’s first cast-iron bathtub. He saw what could be … he saw a place for artful design in business.

Art energizes our public spaces, emboldens our thinking, enriches our communities, and inspires pride and interaction with each other.

It is a necessary inspiration in our busy world, and a symbol of our collective humanity—an unspoken means by which we can connect across cultures, geographies and generations.

Art and creativity are one and the same and indispensable to who we are as people, our quality of life and success in business. Our belief and investment in artistry is one that has guided our company for generations. We have long been guided by the words of British art critic John Ruskin, who once said: “Life without labor is guilt; Labor without art is brutality.”

I will share some distinct programs at Kohler that directly relate to the importance of art and its influence on what we do every day. You will hear about our 44-year old Arts/Industry program, our Artist Editions line of products inspired by our Arts/Industry program, the Waste Lab, and Innovation for Good. And of course, there is our bold print advertising that you may be familiar with, which sometimes looks more like art than product.

The idea of living on the leading edge of design and technology has always been a key guiding principle that inspires our associates to constantly fuel innovation and artistry … and bring to life beautiful, creative products that enhance the consumer experience.

Beautiful form is to us as important as innovative functionality and convenience, and we have always believed that our businesses is indelibly intertwined with the creative process and the artistic community.

As a company, we remain curious and adventurous and employ associates who have an unwavering appreciation for design and the arts, and a healthy appetite to explore and discover new technologies. We foster a collaborative environment where our leadership sets the tone and encourages all associates to be as imaginative and entrepreneurial as possible—from sketching an initial concept or penning a big idea, to testing a new product prototype or designing an amazing master bathroom suite.

A creative work force, particularly within a design-centric organization such as Kohler, is the backbone to drive product innovation and sustained business success.

Among our 35,000 associates across six continents, we invest heavily in promoting innovation and problem solving, through a cross-cultural and cross-functional team approach—whether it be designing a better process or developing a new way of working in this fast-paced, ever-changing world.

Today, Kohler Company is the number-one plumbing brand in the United States and China, and the number-one international brand in India. In order to lead and continue growing and gaining market share, we need dynamic and diverse teams of individuals who are right-brain and left-brain.

We need people who have the capacity to pull the qualities of both worlds to create the next big idea. The combination is nothing short of inspiring. While individuals like Steve Jobs and Frank Lloyd Wright don’t come around often, we particularly value candidates who can excel in STEAM subjects—science, technology, engineering, art and math.

In fact, our executive chairman, Herb Kohler, believes an ideal associate is an industrial designer with an M.B.A.

This isn’t just based on our experience, but is also grounded in academic studies. For example:

  • The University of Florida conducted research that revealed … on average, students who study the arts for four years in high school scored 98 points higher on their SATs compared to those who studied the same for a half a year or less.
  • The University of Exeter found that people who worked in an office enriched with artwork and plants worked about 15% quicker than those in a lean office.
  • A study of business executives in Virginia found that a majority of those who engage in artistic activities had more positive energy, creativity and an increased openness to new ideas.

In our workspaces at Kohler, we have certainly seen the arts boost productivity, lower stress and increase the well-being of our associates. We believe that art in public spaces serves as a source of creativity and inspiration that stimulates productivity and enjoyment. At our corporate headquarters, we have placed artistic pieces throughout our campus and display numerous exhibits at the Kohler Design Center.

Art informs our brand, helps drive product innovation, and encourages individuals to think differently in their approach. Our unceasing dedication to the arts contributes to the company’s success by keeping our teams up-to-date on emerging artistic ideas that could play an influence on product design. Examples of these bold innovations include:

  • artistic spun glass molding capability for bathroom sinks;
  • sculpted decorative surfaces for both ceramics and cast iron;
  • unique colors and ceramic print transfers for decorative plumbing products;
  • development of our above-counter bathroom sinks—a first in the industry (the prototypes were hand produced using wheel-thrown and slab-built clay models);
  • and our popular Artist Editions line of beautiful painted and sculpted products is a direct result of artists at work within our business teams.

One of our measures of success is a percentage metric we refer to as Vitality Index. We aim to have a set percentage of our total sales driven by new products introduced over the last three years. It’s an ambitious goal designed to keep our new product pipeline robust and ensure we are providing the most innovative solutions to customers in a way that is relevant across myriad cultures. It requires creativity and tight collaboration among our consumer insights, design, engineering, marketing and communications teams.

Art and innovation also permeate our efforts in sustainability and social impact. At Kohler, we Believe In Better, because business success doesn’t matter much if we can’t say we left the world a better place than we found it.

The Waste Lab originated at one of our Innovation For Good workshops—an annual convergence where our associates incubate new ideas for social impact products. In this instance, a team comprised mostly of artists and designers brainstormed methods to refine production processes, minimize industrial waste, and reuse waste where possible.

Since 2010, as a company, we have reduced the amount of production waste sent to landfills by 46%, and the Waste Lab team working out of a dedicated space in our enamel shop is trying to find ways to decrease it further.

In doing so, they are turning pottery cull, foundry sand and other waste products into beautiful ceramic tiles—a poignant example of how associates are applying creative thinking to waste while designing artistic new products.

Taking inspiration from that goal, our Arts/Industry program was founded in 1974 as a partnership between the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and Kohler Company. It has endured as a unique collaboration between artists and industry in the United States—one that has brought us significant recognition, but more importantly, has brought to the world some beautiful pieces of art that otherwise would never have happened. Over 600 emerging and established artists from around the world have benefitted from this program and have left their mark.

There is no other artist residency program where artists’ studios are located right on the production floor of a manufacturing facility, such as our cast iron foundry or pottery. Artists are introduced to bulk materials, such as slip-cast clay and cast metal, and techniques that give them a new way of thinking and working creatively.

One of the most important aspects of Arts/Industry are relationships that develop between the artists in residence and our production associates. Artists in residence value the expertise and experience of these associates, and the associates in turn are engaged in helping the artists solve creative problems.

Associates have remarked that working with these artists has helped them think more creatively about their own work to push the limits of materials, processes, colors and sizes.

Communities rich in arts and culture attract people because of their quality of life, character, and opportunities for participation and investment. Art fosters vibrant communities and allows them to create and sustain social networks, and to establish their identities outside of traditional demographics. Art allows people to learn valuable skills—across all walks of life—and to participate in nontraditional, creative outlets.

And as I have described today, the arts also play a vital role in sustaining and growing successful businesses, by inspiring creative problem solving and successful innovation for consumers.

I appeal to you to take a step back and both recognize and appreciate what the arts and creative industries offer in terms of elevating the American economy, as well as fostering exploration and innovation that lead to better solutions. Let’s come together—private sector, education, government and nonprofit—and ensure that the arts remain relevant and respected today and for future generations. That requires an investment—collectively—of our time, our expertise, our passion and our financial support.

I think about my great-grandfather and wonder if Kohler Company today is what he imagined 145 years ago. I believe it’s more than he dreamed. And I’m so appreciative that all these years later our passion and inspiration have never waned. Kohler has grown into a global success story … one that will continue to grow for another 145 years as we pass along the gifts of creativity and expression through the arts.

Please join with me and together we can imagine what’s next.

In this Issue

From the President and CEO

Announcements and Resources

Legislative Update

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Research on Demand

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