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Wexner, Leslie - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Leslie Wexner, Social and Economic Impact

store limited stores ohio

(1937-)
The Limited Inc.

Overview

Leslie Wexner opened The Limited, a chain of women’s apparel stores, in 1963. Since then, his chain has been described by Forbes magazine as “the fastest growing, most profitable specialty retailer in the country,” and Wexner was described as “the greatest merchandising talent in America.” Wexner presently oversees a $9.2 billion business with over 28 million square feet of retail space in more than 5,600 outlets, making The Limited Inc. one of the largest and most dominant companies in specialty retailing. All this began from a single store in Columbus, Ohio, after his father had rejected his son’s suggestion that the family’s clothing store should specialize in women’s sportswear. His father told him, “You’ll never be a merchant.”

Personal Life

Leslie Wexner was born in Dayton, Ohio, on September 9, 1937, the son of Henry Wexner, who had emigrated from Russia when he was 13 years old. When Leslie was born, his father was working as a manager of a chain of budget clothing stores. Leslie’s mother was employed as a buyer for a department store. Wexner credits his father with teaching him the importance of hard work and attention to details, and his mother with helping him to believe that anything is possible. During his childhood, Wexner’s father often took job transfers, which moved the family from city to city; therefore Wexner was unable to put down roots until 1951 when his parents opened a women’s clothing store in Columbus, Ohio. They named the store “Leslie’s” after their son. As a child Wexner did poorly in school and he was reminded at least twice by his school principal—that he was not working up to his potential. His classmates remember him as someone who rarely socialized. Wexner did not intend to follow his parents into the clothing business. He wanted, instead, to become an architect.

After graduating with honors from Ohio State University in 1959, Wexner began law school, but he dropped out after two years and began to work in his parent’s store. Wexner thought his parents should reduce their full line of women’s clothing to specialize in sportswear, the store’s best-selling item. As Wexner recalled, “I thought it would improve the business if we only sold sportswear, because it was the only profitable thing. If you made money in chocolate ice cream, why sell other flavors?” Determined to start his own outlet, Wexner convinced his aunt to loan him $5,000 to open a shop in Columbus in 1963. He named the store The Limited because he limited his merchandise to women’s sportswear. This was the beginning of Wexner’s remarkable career in retailing.

According to his colleagues, Wexner is an intense and demanding boss who expects his employees to share his drive. Cheryl Turpin, president of Lane Bryant, said in a 1993 interview with Stores, “He has incredibly high standards and insists on excellence. He perceives no limits to what people can do and doesn’t give up on his standards or vary in his implementation of them. At the same time, though, he is always straightforward and honest, and very supportive.” Wexner told an interviewer for the New York Times Magazine in 1986, “If you want to torture me, take my work away.” Devoted exclusively to his business and a long-time bachelor, Wexner married Abigail S. Koppel, a New York attorney, in 1993. They have two children and divide their time among residences in New Albany, Ohio; Palm Beach, Florida; Aspen, Colorado; and New York City, New York. A collector of contemporary art, Wexner serves as a trustee to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Columbus Art Museum in Ohio. One of his hobbies is interior decoration, which he expresses by redecorating the homes of his friends.

Wexner is also a committed philanthropist. In an interview with The Washington Post, he explained that a turning point in his life occurred while he was walking down a mountain in Vail, Colorado, following a snowstorm. He became struck by the thought that “what is important is how you feel about yourself now,” and he resolved to use his wealth to make a difference during his lifetime by supporting educational, cultural, and civic programs. He has established at least 11 trusts or foundations to funnel his philanthropy. The Wexner Foundation has donated millions of dollars for such projects as a graduate study program at Harvard University, the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at Ohio State University, and the Wexner Research Center at Children’s Hospital in Columbus. Wexner personally donated $1 million to the United Way in 1989 and has given at least $25,000 yearly since 1983. Wexner has proven to be as good as his word as one of industry’s most generous philanthropists.

Career Details

Wexner was confident that his decision to open his first store specializing in women’s sportswear was a good one. As he recalled in an interview in Stores, “Although I didn’t understand fashion, I understood that (sportswear) was what all my female friends wore.” In the early days after opening the first store, Wexner worked daily from 7:00 a.m. to midnight. He washed the store’s windows himself and did his own bookkeeping. With such effort and a winning formula, the store was a success and in its first year, The Limited’s sales were $160,000. In 1965, Milton Petrie, chairman of the Petrie Stores, a large chain of women’s specialty shops, was so impressed by Wexner’s operation that he offered to buy 49.5 percent of the company and offered Wexner a top job in his company. But Wexner turned him down, wanting to run his own business. Although no deal was struck with Petrie, Wexner credits him with helping him overcome his “shopkeeper’s mentality” and to think like an entrepreneur, in terms of building a multi-store business. Soon his parents closed their store and joined their son in his operation.

By 1969, when The Limited went public, Wexner had six stores. Despite Wexner’s former marketing professor’s opposition to the move, Wexner was eager for the capital for his company to grow and to expand beyond Ohio. By 1976 he had 100 stores, and by 1979 there were 300 Limited stores nationwide. At first, Wexner struggled to find a coherent and attractive image for his stores. Wexner learned the importance of attractive store design from Alfred A. Taubman, a real estate developer who specialized in shopping malls. By the 1980s Wexner’s stores were recognized as the industry leader in store presentation.

While he expanded The Limited, Wexner began purchasing other chains. In 1982 he bought the 222-store Lane Bryant chain, which grew to 360 stores by 1985. He also bought and expanded a small chain of lingerie stores, Victoria’s Secret. In 1985 he acquired the nearly bankrupt 764-store Lerner chain. He also started a chain of stores for younger buyers, The Limited Express, which grew to 186 stores by the mid-1980s. Other acquisitions included Henri Bendel and Abercrombie & Fitch. Wexner joined with Britain’s Next Plc. to open Bath & Body Works to compete with the Body Shop. The acquisitions and new companies have given Wexner entry to a wide area of the apparel and retail market. Sales in 1983 exceeded $1 billion, rising to $2 billion in 1985, $3 billion in 1986, and $3.5 billion in 1987. Profits were equally staggering, making Wexner an extremely wealthy man. As of 1997, The Limited, Inc. reported net sales of $9.2 billion.

A significant factor in Wexner’s success has been his ability to spot trends both in his merchandise and in his company’s organizational structure. By anticipating the needs of his customers, Wexner has been able to keep ahead of his competition. As Howard Gross, president of The Limited Store, explained in an interview for Stores, “Leslie senses what consumer lifestyles are and what consumer desires will be years ahead—he just senses it.” Wexner determined early on that he was not simply selling clothing, but desires and self-image. This is revealed in Wexner’s revamping of the Lane Bryant line of clothing for larger women. Traditionally, larger sizes had lacked style and were made from loud fabrics not used for smaller sizes. Wexner rejected this, declaring that “Big women are just like every other woman . . . they want to look like their smaller friends.” By stressing fashionable clothes, sales at Lane Bryant stores increased by 20 percent annually in the first few years that Wexner took over. With Victoria’s Secret, Wexner realized that many women who dressed in conservative business attire would still indulge in more feminine and sexy lingerie. Making over the Victoria’s Secret stores with lush Victorian furnishings underscored their products by stressing sexy indulgence. When Victoria’s Secret customers began asking if they could purchase the classical music they heard in the shops, Wexner began selling classical CD’s in Victoria’s Secret’s 580 stores and through its catalogs. Five out of ten classical albums that have gone platinum (having sold a million or more) are sold by Victoria’s Secret. Again, Wexner’s marketing genius is evident.

Chronology: Leslie Wexner

1937: Born.

1959: Graduated from Ohio State University.

1961: Began working in his parents’ clothing store.

1963: Opened the first The Limited store in Columbus, Ohio.

1969: Went public with The Limited, Inc.

1976: Opened the 100th The Limited store.

1979: Opened the 300th The Limited store.

1982: Acquired Lane Bryant and Victoria’s Secret retail chains.

1985: Acquired Lerner retail stores.

1993: Married Abigail S. Koppel.

Wexner has also kept abreast of major corporate organization trends. Throughout its early years, The Limited expanded rapidly with a tightly centralized structure. In 1987, Wexner began to worry that his company’s large organizational structure was impeding its flexibility. Profit margins were beginning to slip under the weight of his company’s size, and Wexner began to decentralize his company along divisional lines, giving more authority to lower-level managers. Wexner had anticipated corporate wisdom that smaller is generally better. Sales and profits returned to former levels. To encourage team spirit and initiative, 90 percent of The Limited employees are shareholders. His willingness to involve his employees in the profits of his company has made over 50 of his employees millionaires. As Wexner explained, “It’s not that I saw the future, I just like the idea of fairness of the people working in the enterprise being able to invest in it. But looking back, it was a pretty good idea, because it has not only been fair . . . but also it has been tremendous as an enabling factor in the success of the business. It creates a harmony of interest among the people in the distribution centers, financial people, store managers, salespeople, all across the business.”

Social and Economic Impact

From his start with one Limited store, Wexner has built a retailing empire that has greatly influenced the fashion industry. Ever mindful of the needs of his customers, Wexner has shown the corporate world how success can be attained by paying attention to market factors and by understanding what drives buyers to express their needs by purchasing products. He has also been instrumental in making style and up-to-date fashion within the reach of most people. Recognizing initially the appeal of smart-looking sportswear that defined The Limited, Wexner has helped create stylish, affordable casual clothing that now dominates the fashion market.

Wexner has also influenced corporate management structure. He led the trend among larger companies in the 1980s and 1990s in decentralizing organizational structure and encouraging individual initiative to enhance productivity and innovation. In this sense, The Limited has become a model for other retailers for maintaining momentum and profits.

Wexner is one of corporate America’s largest and most influential philanthropists who has given back a large percentage of his fortune to make a difference in education, health care, and cultural programs. Communities, particular around The Limited’s base in Columbus, Ohio, have been considerably improved by Wexner’s charitable efforts.

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