Spa pro Jean Kolb began her career at the Kohler Company a week after her 18th birthday—and remained for 37 years. A dynamic and passionate leader, Jean accomplished much during her tenure. In 2000, she opened the Kohler Waters Spa, and subsequent spas in 2006 and 2008. In 2012, the Kohler Waters Spa achieved its Forbes Five Star award—and still holds this ranking today. A past chairman of the International Spa Association, Jean served on the board of directors for eight years, and today serves on the board of directors for Wellness Council of Wisconsin.
Jean and I caught up shortly after she announced her retirement, and reminisced about the industry’s highs and lows. Here, highlights from our conversation.
On Trends that Come and Grow
When I think back, everything that seemed a little frightening is actually helping us to grow our industry now. For example:
Affordable Services like Massage Envy: We thought [the business model] might compromise the industry, but it’s actually introducing more consumers to the benefits of the spa lifestyle. When trends come around the corner and look a little unique or scary, we have to question ourselves about why we feel that way, then evaluate it and move forward with courage as an industry.
Fifteen years ago, spas didn’t want to invest in wet treatment rooms, they didn’t have the expertise, and they didn’t know the benefits of hydrotherapy.
The Stone Massage: When this was introduced we thought it would be “here today, gone tomorrow,” but it’s still around. As long as it’s therapeutic—good for the physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing of our client—it’s not going to go away.
Hydrotherapy: When Kohler entered the spa industry 15 years ago, the entire hydrotherapy portion of spa in the US wasn’t quite there. Spas didn’t want to invest in wet treatment rooms, they didn’t have the expertise, and they didn’t know the benefits of hydrotherapy. We knew that’s what we wanted to hang our hat on. At that time, less than 10 percent of our total spa services were hydrotherapy services and we had four out of 21 rooms dedicated to it. We were taking a gamble, but knew people would come to us for our expertise. We had to learn it. We couldn’t fake it. We had to make sure it was authentic.
On the Tremendous Lows
We opened the Kohler Waters Spa at Burr Ridge in April 2008—by the end of the year the economy had tanked. We had just invested about $4 million in this day spa. Kohler as a company doesn’t let you have the excuse of “Well, the economy is suffering . . . ” We had to find ways to be successful. It took us to the beginning of year five, but we did it. In 2012, Burr Ridge received the Best Chicago Day Spa Award by Chicago magazine, beating out Trump, Peninsula, and more. It was terrific.
When it comes to leadership and management within the [spa] industry, managing through those really tumultuous waters during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 was really difficult—I learned a lot of good lessons. I was ISPA Chair at the time and we were concerned about Conference and had to make tough decisions. Those were rough waters and there were heated debates on how we were going to spend the association’s money during this time. There was lively conversation among board members, but at the end of the day we came together and steered the ship forward. It’s these difficult choices that make you a stronger, more focused leader.
On Water Treatments
All of Kohler’s water treatments are fantastic and use hot and cold therapy, as well. This really relaxes the body. One of the last treatments I created was Lavender Rain, and this May we changed it to Rain Man, geared to men. It uses pine and includes extra-exfoliation on the back.
Every year I came up with a new water treatment—if we kept every single one, we’d have 15 water treatments on the menu! We take some off, and all of them are good, so it’s really hard. It’s like letting your child go out the door—but we bring them back seasonally.
I really think our very best service was the Tsunami—but then the devastating tsunami of 2004 hit, and we immediately got rid of the treatment, along with all of the products. Cooler Near the Lake was a really popular treatment. Our roots are grounded in the Great Lakes’ area, and the stones that we used are from Lake Superior. Our team went out and personally picked them out of the lake to use in the treatment.
On Bringing it Home
It’s not because I worked at Kohler for 37 years, but I’m a bathing queen. Once a week, I do my candles, get out the Kerstin Florian bath salts (they’re so incredible), get a nice cool pitcher of water—and take a wonderful bath with soft music. It’s a special ritual. Sometimes my husband joins me. People who don’t make the time for a long bath are missing out.
I take the hydrotherapy thought process with me when I take a shower, as well. I get the water tepid, body temperature, and then when I’m in the shower, I heat up the water to where it feels comfortable. I shampoo my hair, wash my body, and rinse out my hair. When the shampoo has been rinsed out, I turn the water as cold as I can tolerate it and rinse my hair and body. When I get out of the shower, I feel so refreshed. I’ve done this for years. It’s really good for your skin.
On the Future
I’m taking some time off to do some reflecting. I’ve started a company called Jean Kolb Well by Choice. I enjoy motivational speaking, and I talk a lot about the fact that wellness is a choice. Health may not always be a choice, but you can still live and make decisions that lead to your better health and overall wellbeing.
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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