Wexner, Leslie H. 1937–
Leslie H. Wexner
Chief executive officer, The Limited
Born: September 9, 1937, in Dayton, Ohio.
Education: Ohio State University, BS, 1959.
Family: Son of Harry L. Wexner, a budget clothing-store manager, and Bella Cabakoff, a department-store buyer and philanthropist; married Abigail Koppel, formerly a corporate attorney, 1993; children: three.
Career: Leslie's, 1961–1963, clerk; The Limited, 1963–, chairman and CEO; Easton Town Center, 1987–, developer.
Awards: Honorary LLD, Hofstra University, 1987; Honorary LHD, Brandeis University, 1990; Honorary PhD, Jewish Theological Institute, 1990; Gold Medal Award, National Retail Federation, 1993.
Address: The Limited, Three Limited Parkway, Columbus, Ohio 43230; http://www.limitedbrands.com.
■ One of the greatest of American entrepreneurs, Leslie Wexner reinvigorated the business of selling women's clothes by offering fashionable separates (e.g., skirts, blouses, and pants) that evoked particular lifestyles, such as lounging in the Italian countryside or roaming through the Australian outback. He began The Limited with $5,000 and one women's apparel store in 1963; by the start of the 21st century, Limited Brands had grown to comprise more than four thousand stores and seven retail divisions offering everything from children's clothing to sexy lingerie to perfumed soaps. For innovativeness and quality of management, Fortune magazine ranked Limited Brands the World's Most Admired Company in 2003.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Wexner learned clothing business from his parents. In 1951 Bella and Harry Wexner opened a small women's clothing store, Leslie's, in downtown Columbus, Ohio, which would become the younger Wexner's training ground. He
worked there after he left Ohio State University and credited the experience with teaching him the importance of paying attention to detail.
One of the details that Wexner observed involved the buying preferences of American women. He noticed that sports wear sold best and suggested to his parents that they specialize in that line of apparel. Harry Wexner refused, telling his son that he would never be a merchant. The younger Wexner subsequently borrowed $5,000 from an aunt and opened The Limited—the name coming from Wexner's notion to limit his stock to sportswear only—at the Kingsdale Shopping Center in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington on August 10, 1963. The store's design of used brick, dark wood, stained glass, and charred cork in a rustic old-world motif displayed Wexner's characteristic attention to atmosphere. Sales on the first day of business were $473; by the end of the first year The Limited had sold $160,000 worth of sportswear. Upon expanding to six stores in 1969, Wexner took The Limited public and used the proceeds from the stock sale to finance a massive expansion into malls.
MASTER OF THE MALLS
By the 1960s enclosed malls had replaced downtowns as centers of business throughout the United States by offering visual spectacle, convenient parking, and a safe shopping environment. Wexner used the popularity of malls to fuel the growth of The Limited, as he believed that the success of a store was dependent more upon location than advertising. He found ideas for new products and store designs by traveling to Europe at least four times every year and by looking through magazines. As a result of Wexner's flair for merchandising and design, and in spite of his refusal to engage in national advertising and other forms of marketing, The Limited thrived. It soon became the dominant specialty retailer in American malls by selling not just sportswear but something for everyone.
From his initial focus on women's sportswear, Wexner expanded The Limited into the realms of lacy bras and sexy lingerie with Victoria's Secret, sporting goods with Galyan's Trading Company, and soaps with Bath & Body Works. Limited Too focused upon children; The White Barn Candle Company offered home decor items; and Aura Science provided skin care products. Henri Bendel served the high-income, thirty-something New York woman, and Express marketed apparel to single, chic shoppers of both sexes.
An entrepreneur at heart, Wexner enjoyed delving into new retail concepts. He had a knack for acquiring companies, refocusing their niches, and targeting new audiences. Abercrombie & Fitch was one of his successes. Wexner bought the company in 1986 when it was a sporting goods store on the verge of bankruptcy and began reversing its fortunes by selling conservative men's wear. He then shifted to selling clothing to trendy youth in the 14 to 24 age group; by 1998 Abercrombie & Fitch was thriving, at which point Wexner established the company as public and fully independent by offering Abercrombie & Fitch stock for Limited stock and spinning-off the new business.
AN ENTREPRENEUR, NOT A MANAGER
A temperamental man who once sued his own mother, Wexner was known for being autocratic and for constantly bouncing from one project to another. He conceded that he did not always work well with others. In an interview with the New York Times, Wexner reflected, "I've always lived in my own world, and that world is very much in the future" (December 8, 1996). Boredom with the here and now eventually led Wexner to make decisions that hurt the sales growth and stock price of The Limited.
The very breadth of Wexner's retail portfolio triggered the decline of his empire. To many investors and stock analysts, Wexner appeared to enjoy creating new stores more than running established businesses—he had difficulty switching from an entrepreneurial style to a managerial one. The Limited fell into a pattern of developing new retail concepts, nurturing stores into industry leaders, then watching them flounder as something shinier caught the chairman's eye. As a result of inattention Wexner's divisions began to look alike, with customers unable to differentiate between the goods of the flagship store and those sold by other ventures. Additionally, Wexner received criticism from Wall Street for seeming to alternate between micromanagement and overdelegation of authority to corporate accountants.
By 1993 The Limited had run into serious difficulties. Sales of women's apparel dropped as the company lost both its fashion direction and its customers. Investors blamed Wexner for the troubles, but Wexner blamed everyone else. According to him, subordinates had made poor buying decisions, investors had lost faith, and mall developers had taken the fun out of shopping by ignoring tenant mixes and building cookie-cutter sites.
Seeking to revive the company, Wexner recalled the words of a former Ohio State University marketing professor who had said that change should be a habit. Accordingly, he changed both his management style and the internal structure of The Limited. Under the guidance of a Harvard Business School professor he centralized certain functions, including financial management and marketing, while sharpening the company's focus on core brands, where the most value could be added. The divisions were then encouraged to work together and share information through monthly meetings of divisional heads, who had been fierce rivals under the old structure. Wexner sold Lane Bryant, a clothing store for plus-size women; to complete the revamping, Wexner closed more than one hundred other stores, including those with flagging sales, oversized spaces, and locations in dying malls. The Limited became Limited Brands in 2002 to reflect the change in focus from developing specialty stores to developing brand recognition.
The changes met with a mixed reception. The creation of fashion teams to design clothes and styles specific to each division antagonized merchandising executives accustomed to independently identifying emerging trends. The increased bureaucracy stifled creativity and prompted many executives to leave. Wexner responded to employee resistance by taking more interest in personnel decisions and making sure that he met with all of the new executive-level hires.
While he assured investors of his commitment to bolstering the profits of his core business, Wexner continued to follow his pattern of being distracted by new toys—he entered the field of property development. His largest and most innovative project was the 1,200-acre Easton Town Center located 12 miles east of Columbus, Ohio. Starting in 1987 he had used his personal funds to buy thousands of acres of countryside for a combined residential, entertainment, and commercial development. Opened in 1999, the complex pioneered the new trend of open-air malls that mimicked old-fashioned downtowns. Reflecting the qualities that made malls popular, it was a visually dazzling and safe playground for shoppers.
In contrast to many other captains of business, Wexner was not solely focused on his work. After marrying at the late age of 55, he assembled an art collection studded with Picassos and de Koonings, bought mansions in Palm Beach, Florida, and Aspen, Colorado, took cruises on his yacht, The Limitless, and made a hobby out of redecorating homes. A philanthropist of considerable note, he was a generous supporter of Jewish charities and donated $25 million to establish the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.
See also entry on The Limited, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
Logan, Rochelle, and Julie Halverstadt, 100 Most Popular Business Leaders for Young Adults: Biographical Sketches and Professional Paths, Greenwood Village, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 2002.
Steinhauer, Jennifer, and Edward Wyatt, "The Merlin of the Mall Tries Out New Magic," New York Times, December 8, 1996.
Zinn, Laura, "Did Leslie Wexner Take His Eye off the Ball?" BusinessWeek, May 24, 1993, p. 104.
—Caryn E. Neumann