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FREMONT, Calif. — Work doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.
And for nearly four decades, Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer has proven that people can enjoy what they do and still be successful.
“At The Men’s Wearhouse, we may sell clothes, but it’s our employees that are the heart and soul of our business,” the company writes on its Web site. “Our belief is that there is no better road to success than to create and foster an environment in which our people can grow, prosper and flourish.
“Culturally our business is founded on a core set of values that include nurturing creativity, growing together, admitting to mistakes, promoting a happy and healthy lifestyle, enhancing a sense of community, and striving to become self-actualized people.”
These corporate credos reflect Zimmer’s background as a child of the Sixties and a self-professed hippie. In a documentary entitled “Hippies Use Side Door,” Zimmer says he would only go into business if he could write his own rules and incorporate compassion and empathy into the culture.
For over a decade, Men’s Wearhouse has landed on Fortune’s list as one of the 100 best companies to work for, a ranking that is determined by surveying a firm’s employees.
Although the roots of the corporate culture were sown by Zimmer, it was his childhood friend Charles Bresler who quantified the process.
The two met in middle school in Scarsdale, N.Y., and went to college together. While Zimmer got caught up in the antiestablishment fervor during his college years, Bresler said he was “a political activist” who was “going to change the world. I was way too self-important to smoke dope and sing.”
Bresler completed a Ph.D. in clinical and social science and was a graduate professor of psychiatry when Zimmer enlisted him to join the Men’s Wearhouse in 1993, the year after it went public.
“The culture was here,” said Bresler, whose title is executive vice president of human resources. “I just started the employee relations and behavioral sales program. The idea of having fun at work was also here; I just added vocabulary and contextural management to it.”
He likened his role to a farmer: “I dropped a few seeds and I knew it would grow because the ground was so fertile.”
Incoming chief executive officer Doug Ewert said it’s rare for a retailer to have a behavioral psychiatrist on staff. “But Charlie knew what seeds to plant and George was ready for that,” said Ewert. “We needed a more professional training program and we needed to adjust to being a public company.”
Ewert believes the company is successful because of its selling culture. “A lot of retailers talk about service, but don’t replicate it on the selling floor,” he said, “especially in the middle market. Nordstrom can do it, but it’s not the same scale.”
He said that to get people in 1,200 locations in North America on board, they “have to be happy. We are focused on the store experience and creating a high-quality store environment.”
Bresler said this takes energy and Men’s Wearhouse creates this energy by hosting elaborate black-tie holiday parties in each region as well as management meetings and spirit contests.
Ewert said the company does “better than most” at training. The company hosts comprehensive initiation programs that are augmented by continuing education programs that include managers being brought to California once a year for three to four days to be updated on the company’s strategies.
“It bands people together,” Bresler said.
He said there is “virtually no turnover in regional managers” and very little change on the store management level. Even “wardrobe consultants,” the company’s term for its salespeople, leave the company at a level below the industry average.
“It’s a company that believes in promoting from within,” Ewert said.
“People think it’s a good company to work for,” Bresler added.
Ewert said the company extends its corporate culture to its vendors as well. “We’re great partners with our suppliers,” he said. “There are no chargebacks and we understand shipping issues. It’s not a one-way street and that gets us access to great brands and pricing.”
When Ewert joined the company 16 years ago, Men’s Wearhouse struggled to buy well-known brands. “But we don’t hear, ‘no’ a lot anymore,” he said. “That’s why our branded assortment is so big. It used to be 20 percent, but now it’s 50 percent and we have Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, all the big guys. Vendors realized they can’t live on just selling Macy’s alone.”
At the same time, the company encourages employees to give back to their local communities by supporting neighborhood nonprofit groups with gift card donations and volunteerism.
On a national scale, the company has focused on helping to dress men struggling to enter or reenter the workforce. For the past three years, it has spearheaded a National Suit Drive where customers donate used suits, shirts, ties, shoes, sportswear and outerwear. The donated product is then directed to local nonprofit groups for distribution.
In 2010, more than 88,000 pieces of apparel, including 20,000-plus suits, were donated and the company matched the number of suit donations with the same number of dress shirts.
“It is the goal of Men’s Wearhouse to make sure that no men are denied the opportunity to be good providers, responsible citizens and positive role models because they lack the appropriate wardrobe to land a job,” the company said.
In addition to speaking to his own employees about the company culture, Zimmer has a full schedule of engagements at universities where he details his philosophy to students preparing for a career in business.
He sums up that philosophy simply. In a video on the company’s Web site, Zimmer said there is “more to business than formulas” and “following the Golden Rule is the best way to ensure success.”