Mike Keiser, Herb Kohler and Richard Jenrette are names you may or may not recognize. Each of them has had an impact on my life and the lives of many other people and their communities.
Each man has been a titan of business.
Mike Keiser created Recycled Paper Greetings in 1971 by riding the zeitgeist’s concern for environmental protection, even in something as prosaic as greeting cards.
Herb Kohler took over the family business after flirting with a career as a thespian. He doubled the company’s engine and generator business while starting an interiors group. Some of the plumbing fixtures in your home may even bear his name.
Richard Jenrette, from Raleigh, was one of the founding partners of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette. The firm created a new kind of institutional investing and became the first publicly traded investment firm in the United States.
While these have been very successful careers, the impacts of which I speak came later. Rather than chose to use their vast wealth on hedonistic pursuits, each of these men decided to create something tangible and beneficial to others.
Mike Keiser turned his penchant for recycling in a new direction. He began in 2005 to create new golf destinations in old, out-of-the-way towns. Bandon, Oregon, on the state’s southern coast, first received the Keiser treatment. The small town of 2,500 people has now become the home to five of the top-rated courses in the country.
Next he turned to Inverness, Nova Scotia. While the coal mining there gave out, they did have a sandy shoreline. The good townspeople sold Keiser 200 acres of links land for $1. He went on to create Cabot Links and then added Cabot Cliffs.
Having played both, I can attest that they are truly magnificent courses. And the course lodging is right in town, bringing jobs and money to what would otherwise be a very poor town in a magnificent setting.
I just returned from Keiser’s latest American endeavor, at Sand Valley in remote Nekoosa, Wisconsin. Like a latter-day Tufts, Keiser has found previously unnoticed pine-covered sandhills and created two thoroughly original inland links courses. Here, too, he is adding lodging and dining with its attendant employment.
Like Keiser, Herb Kohler also turned his eyes toward golf, but much closer to his own home in Kohler, Wisconsin. He took an old dormitory for immigrant workers and created the American Club, the only Five-Star Triple A-rated hotel in the Midwest.
Like Tufts, when he found that his guests were looking to play golf, he went on to create multiple courses nearby, including major hosting venues like Black Wolf Run and Whistling Straits.
On my recent visit there, I was surprised to see that Kohler’s vision has expanded the area’s economy from what was a factory town into a destination resort, while still retaining the factory. Besides golfers, our lodgings were filled with business people in town for meetings — who, like us, patronized local shops and restaurants.
Unlike Keiser or Kohler, Jenrette’s vision did not encompass golf. Rather, he focused his attention on preserving Federal-period homes. He bought, restored and furnished such homes in New York, South Carolina, St. Croix and North Carolina.
My first contact with his good work was when I attended a party at Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I served on the board of the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, and we were using the property as the site of a donor-recognition event. While mingling with the crowd, a gentleman offered to give my wife and me a tour of the house. It turned out to be Jenrette himself who showed us around, casually mentioning that Thomas Jefferson’s father had produced the map of Virginia hanging on the wall.
Jenrette established the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, to which he donated all the homes he had preserved. At Ayr Mount, the grounds are open to the public daily and for special events (like my own son’s wedding). Besides preserving an important part of our history, Jenrette’s work provides communities with destinations that draw people and dollars, enhancing the quality of life and the economy.
While there are many people who make a fortune for themselves in the world of business, we are fortunate that there are people like Keiser, Kohler and Jenrette who continue throughout their lives to use their entrepreneurial skills to change communities for the better.
Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.