Country of origin: Poland
Businesses: Kohl’s (1962)
Headquarters: Menomonee Falls, WI
2017 revenue: $19.0 billion
Worldwide employment: 85,000
Ranked 157 in the 2018 Fortune 500
Maxwell Kohl started his entrepreneurial career with a chain of grocery stores.
He decided to go into the department store business after a bad experience trying to buy a shirt.
Maxwell Kohl came to the United States from Poland and worked in factories in the Milwaukee area until 1927 when, at the age of 26, he used his savings to open a small grocery store.
Kohl was a natural businessman. The business grew and added locations even through the Depression. In 1946, with great fanfare, he opened Milwaukee’s first modern-style supermarket with innovations such as an in-store bakery and deli. He eventually grew a chain of 48 supermarkets in Wisconsin before selling the business in 1970.
Kohl was not only a shrewd businessman but also a demanding customer. Based on his own dissatisfying experience trying to buy a shirt, he decided to go into the department store business, and in 1962 Kohl’s Department Stores was born.
Kohl used his experience with supermarkets to institute customer service and inventory management efficiencies that were not commonly seen in department stores at that time. These efficiencies allowed the stores to offer lower prices than high-end stores and with higher quality than the discounters. The formula worked, and Kohl’s quickly became a successful chain. Kohl and his sons ran the company until 1972 when it was sold to Brown & Williamson. Kohl retired; his son Herbert went on to become a U.S. Senator and owner of the Milwaukee Bucks; and his son Sidney became a highly successful real estate developer in Florida.
Today, Kohl’s Department Stores is a nation-wide chain with more than 1,160 stores and distribution centers in 49 states.