Fit for a queen
Toilets and art are generally not two things most people would associate with each other, but for global kitchen and bath appliance manufacturer Kohler, the parallels between the loo and the Louvre are self-evident.
"Every day, we strive to fulfil our mission of improving the lives of every person who is touched by our products and services," says Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Herbert Kohler.
The private US company follows the same global philosophy in China, where it sticks to the high-end market.
"Customer demand varies in different countries, but when it comes to high-end products, we find that people across the world have similar expectations. And this is the area we are very competitive in," says Larry Yuen, managing director of Kohler China Investment Co Ltd.
Yuen tells China Business Weekly that the firm is primarily focusing on affluent Chinese consumers. It is simply not interested in engaging in price wars with its domestic rivals.
Kohler has discovered increasing demand for classy bathroom appliances in China, especially in Beijing, Shanghai and a number of provincial capitals. Demand in China is even catching up with global trends, Yuen says, adding that many Chinese consumers now recognize that the bathroom is not just a place for washing and cleaning, but rather a space in which to relax and pamper themselves.
Yuen says Chinese customers expect high quality and uniquely designed products, which is Kohler's mission.
"We re-invest 90 per cent of our profits back into research and development every year. We develop products with seasoned engineers and marketing professionals to ensure that what we offer is not just aesthetically appealing, but is also functionally superior," Yuen says.
He says design, craftsmanship and technology are their advantages against competition from traditional rivals such as American Standard and TOTO.
Yuen lists the latest products the company has introduced to China: the Watertile collection, the Purist Hatbox toilet, and a bubble massage bathtub, among others.
"We are the first company in the world to develop these products. We lead world trends," he says.
Yuen adds that Kohler wants to meet consumer demands while also offering new concepts. The Purist Hatbox toilet, for example, is a perfect mix of stark beauty and outstanding functionality. Conventional elements of the traditional toilet are nowhere to be seen in the minimalist design. This electronic product is aesthetically pleasing with its innovative tankless design. It challenges common perceptions of what a toilet should even look like.
"Over the past couple of decades, we've witnessed the TV's transformation from bulky boxes to slim, streamlined plasma screens. Appliances have gone from typical white to commercially inspired stainless steel and even retro colours," says David Kohler, president of Kohler's kitchen and bath group.
"Why should toilet design stay the same as it has been for the last century? The Purist Hatbox toilet is simply a natural evolution of how we perceive the toilet," he says.
Kohler has long maintained a dialogue with the art community by opening the doors of its pottery and iron foundry to internationally recognized artists. Over the years, design ideas generated by artists have been translated into innovative new products.
Yuen says Kohler's market in China is not limited to first-tier cities, but rather secondary cities. such as those across the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta.
"We are very happy to see the emerging market in those areas, and we will continue to reinforce our brand image by opening new stores," Yuen says, but declines to elaborate further.
Kohler has over 400 stores in roughly 100 cities across China.
It recently won a contract to provide baths and toilets for the VIP rooms of the National Olympic Stadium.
Kohler will not leave the medium- and low-end market to domestic producers, however. The company has a lower-end brand, Karat, which Kohler acquired from Thailand in 2002.
Yuen also says the company is co-operating with British construction material retailer B&Q to promote the brand in China.
"Kohler is not very familiar with the medium- and low-end market in China, and in this market the demand for price, quality and design varies greatly between countries, or even within the same nation. We are well on track to learning the market, and Karat will do well here," he says.
There are more than 3,000 bath appliance manufacturers in China, and most focus on the medium- and low-end market. Fewer than 10 producers deal with the high-end market.
Founded in 1873 and headquartered in Kohler, Wisconsin, Kohler Co is one of America's oldest and largest privately held companies. It is a global leader in the production of kitchen and bath products, engines and power generation systems, cabinetry, tile and home interiors. It also supplies hotels and golf resorts throughout the world.
Kohler has been exporting products to China for over 40 years, but only started manufacturing locally in 1997. It has six factories throughout the country, and plans to build more in the next few years.
(China Daily 03/13/2006 page3)
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