By  on June 2, 2011

FREMONT, Calif. — Like the man himself, the stories have become larger than life.

As the legend goes, the Men’s Wearhouse business started with $8,000 and a cigar box to hold cash. “But there’s one other piece to that story,” related George Zimmer, the retailer’s founder, chairman and chief executive officer. “You don’t get a store full of merchandise for $8,000. My father manufactured inexpensive double-knit sport coats and slacks, and he fronted me $100,000 in merchandise at cost.”

Sales were brisk, but within a year and a half that $100,000 loan had become $150,000, prompting a little life lesson from dad.

“He told me, ‘George, in 18 months you’ve lost $50,000. Something is not working. Clearly, you can see your prices are too low.’ My dad taught me the importance of margin.”

Lesson learned. Since that inauspicious beginning in Houston in 1973, Zimmer has systematically built the largest men’s specialty store chain in the country, a $2.1 billion behemoth with 1,192 stores in the U.S. and Canada. Today, one in every five suits in the U.S. is bought in one of his stores.

But on June 15, Zimmer, 62, will hand the ceo reins over to president and chief operating officer Douglas Ewert following the firm’s annual meeting.

However, he’s not retiring. He’ll remain as executive chairman, helping Ewert develop strategies for the business and continuing to participate in marketing and corporate culture initiatives.

“This is just another good decision in a line of great decisions,” Zimmer said during an interview in his suburban San Francisco office. “Every company has to deal with this. I just made the decision to do it relatively young. I’m in good health, business is good and we have none of the problems that we had over the past three years, so it’s the perfect time.”

Zimmer said in many ways this shift in responsibility is just a formality.

“I expect to actually retire when Doug does, so it’ll be a long time,” he said. “I expect to be his sidekick the entire way. I’m just removing myself from being the point guy. It’s like a store manager, even on your day off you call the store. The ceo is never off. So I’m looking forward to giving that responsibility up.”

Even so, Zimmer said he doesn’t expect to be working significantly less. “But now I can travel without guilt,” he said. “I always feel guilty when I go somewhere — I haven’t been to Europe since 1975, but I’m planning to take my wife to Europe this fall.”

It won’t be all pleasure, though: One of the stops on this long-awaited vacation will be Birmingham, England, the headquarters of Men’s Wearhouse’s most recent acquisition, Dimensions and Alexandra PLC, a U.K.-based corporate uniform and workwear producer.

“You can’t really walk away from something you’ve been doing for 38 years,” he said. “I do believe I won’t reduce my efforts here until I drop dead or get really ill. I wouldn’t want to abandon this organization.”

And so Zimmer will continue to be the public face of the company. His ubiquitous TV commercials and their tagline — “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.” — have become part of the vernacular and made him a well-recognized face. Zimmer also is the linchpin of a corporate culture that has resulted in the retailer being named one of the best companies to work for by Fortune magazine for 10 of the past 11 years.

Just last month, the company surprised its employees by delivering 42,400 pizza slices to its stores in the U.S. and Canada just to say thanks. This is simply the latest in a long line of employee appreciation gestures, which include an on-site child care and fully paid sabbaticals.

Every December, Zimmer hosts some 15 black-tie holiday parties for employees around the country, staying up until the wee hours posing for photos and dancing. “Most men don’t like to dance; they only dance to get sex. But I like to dance.

“I am an icon within the organization, but I enjoy it,” he said. “As long as I can make it work personally, I’ll keep doing it. Having a corporate jet makes it easy. So it’s not a hardship to do it indefinitely.”

Zimmer will also continue to participate in the company’s training classes and management meetings. Managers are flown to California in groups of 250 for an annual meeting/training event and the company conducts weeklong intensive manager training classes called Managers University at its California offices as well.

“We lay out our new plan for the year,” Zimmer said. “Most of the benefit of those meetings takes place over meals and cocktails. It’s how people bond into the corporate culture.”

Zimmer and Ewert are front and center at the training classes.

“Doug and I give the same presentation 11 times,” he said. “We could make a video, but that’s the difference between Men’s Wearhouse and other companies. Three thousand people think they work for George. Doug is one of the few men comfortable with that. He understands this is how you have a company with 1,200 stores where everybody feels they’re working for one person.”

It is this marked lack of ego that made Zimmer realize Ewert was the right man to succeed him as ceo.

Over the years three other men have served as president of Men’s Wearhouse and were heir apparents to the top job: David Edwab, vice chairman, dealmaker and the catalyst for the company’s successful public offering in 1992; Eric Lane, the chief merchant who opted to retire at the age of 44 and coach high school basketball in Idaho, and Charles Bresler, executive vice president of human resources and Zimmer’s childhood friend, who is the architect of the company’s corporate culture program.

“All of them have had the position of president and could have replaced me, but it didn’t feel like the right move,” Zimmer said. “David and I are best friends, Eric still consults for us and Charlie and I have been friends for 50 years, but Doug is a unique man.”

Despite its size, Men’s Wearhouse is “a home-grown company,” Zimmer said, noting that his brother Jim is the tailored clothing merchant and “buys 50 percent of what we sell.”

“Many of us have never worked anyplace else, but Doug is a professional merchant and spent a decade learning the trade.”

Ewert joined the Men’s Wearhouse 16 years ago after working his way up the ranks at Macy’s West. “There’s never been a ceo less involved in merchandising,” said Zimmer of himself, “but it’s a new era and now our ceo is a merchant. And most of the buyers were hired by Doug.”

There’s a pool table in the office for the employees to use, and the buyers often congregate there. “But they’re not shooting pool, they’re shooting the breeze. Doug understands the significance of our corporate culture.”

He said Ewert has a “subtle but powerful sense of humor” and a “very small, controlled ego. Most people who have success in life have very large egos. When you’re the founder, you can get away with it. And Doug understands that.”

And he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Ewert has stood under a home-made shower at corporate events to illustrate the attributes of waterproof clothing, and has shared the stage with a dryer to demonstrate the company’s new non-iron dress shirts.

“He has high EQ, emotional intelligence,” Zimmer said. “That’s why Doug’s the guy. And David and Charlie love him, so it feels perfect.”

It’s squarely on Ewert’s shoulders to continue to steer Men’s Wearhouse on the growth path that has marked the company’s way for nearly four decades.

Once Zimmer took his father’s advice and tweaked his pricing strategy to actually turn a profit, it didn’t take long before he branched out into other locations. By 1981, he had expanded to San Francisco and soon after, to other cities.

“It took 15 years before I realized, ‘Oh my God, this formula will work any place,’” Zimmer said. He met David Edwab in 1983 — he was with Deloitte & Touche, the firm’s accountants — when the company was doing $25 million in sales.

“We were in Houston, Northern California, Dallas and Sacramento, it was working well and I was now the TV spokesman. We had moved away from promotional pricing to everyday low pricing,” said Zimmer.

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