Columbus's most powerful man isn't ready to wax poetic about his legacy. Instead, Les Wexner remains as focused as ever on the nuts and bolts of improving his hometown—a quest, as his record-setting $100 million donation to Ohio State highlights, that revolves around the transformation of his alma mater into a world-class institution.
(This story originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.)
Les Wexner is standing outside his office in the Limited Brands headquarters watching a large video screen flash images of shoppers and staff at a Victoria’s Secret and a Bath & Body Works in the Middle East. He smiles, silent for several seconds. It’s as if he’s reflecting on how far he’s come since starting nearly 50 years ago with a single store in Upper Arlington. Then he comments that in 2012 he’ll open his first shops in Russia. The smile broadens as he says that the last time his late Jewish father was in that country, the authorities were chasing him out of it. “He’s laughing somewhere,” Wexner says.
Yes, the Les Wexner Story is a classic American rags-to-riches narrative. And we all know the tale of him turning that single Limited store in UA into a multi-billion-dollar international corporation and becoming one of the richest men in the country and the most powerful person in the city. And there’s no argument he has cajoled and inspired Columbus, transforming it like no one else, whether you’re talking about Limited Brands, Easton, New Albany, the Wexner Center for the Arts, his philanthropy (hundreds of millions of dollars) or, perhaps most importantly, his vision (pushing for bold action and battling the status quo).
In fact, Wexner’s influence is so great you could make the argument that he should be named Columbus Monthly’s Person of the Year every year. That hasn’t been the case. In fact, he’s never received the distinction . . . until now.
Even by Wexnerian standards, 2011 has been a memorable year. After suffering through the economic downturn, Limited Brands has rebounded strongly. He still runs the powerful Columbus Partnership, a collection of the city’s top CEOs, and he continues to serve as chairman of the board of trustees at the region’s most important institution, Ohio State University—manning the helm during the football scandal that engulfed the city, brought down coach Jim Tressel and tarnished OSU’s reputation.
But the tipping point for Wexner’s selection as Person of the Year was in February when he announced another one of his huge donations. This time, Wexner’s philanthropy set a new standard: a $100 million gift to Ohio State University, the largest in the school’s history and his biggest single donation. One hundred million dollars certainly caught our attention.
Wexner sat down with Columbus Monthly for nearly four hours during the course of two interviews mainly to discuss his role with OSU (his alma mater): from the gift and Tattoogate to Gee’s infamous press conference and the future of the university.
The $100 million gift
When Wexner gave away his first $1 million, to the Columbus Jewish Federation many years ago, he recalls “crying like a baby.” The rush of emotion, he explains, was grasping the idea of being capable of handing over such a sum. He remembers thinking: “This is amazing to say it out loud.”
So imagine his reaction to a donation 100 times bigger. In fact, his oldest son, 17-year-old Harry, essentially wondered the same thing. Wexner, whose wealth is estimated at $3.8 billion, says he responded to that inquiry by saying: “Not nearly as good as you think, not as happy as you would think.”
While its size “does not evade me” nor was he devoid of emotion, he describes the gift as a progression of giving over 30 or so years after his now famous moment on top of a Colorado mountain. Trapped in an unexpected snowstorm in 1981, he says he thought about death and realized he wasn’t necessarily proud of his accomplishments; after returning to safety, he plunged into civic and philanthropic affairs. (His wife, Abigail Wexner, discloses that since their marriage in the early 1990s, they have donated $20 million to $25 million a year, mainly to OSU, the Jewish community and Columbus institutions.)
When asked why now for the $100 million gift, he snaps back: “Why not?” He expresses annoyance at affluent people who wait until their death to distribute their riches, using an example of a hungry person who can’t wait until it’s convenient for the giver. “Think about people who benefit,” he says. “Respond to the need.”
The OSU idea actually germinated with Abigail, who told him in the fall of 2010 that as chairman of the OSU board he should provide a lead gift for the university’s $2.5 billion fundraising campaign. “I didn’t want to wait to be asked,” Abigail says. He suggested she come up with a number.
She thought about $50 million, but says it didn’t feel right. So she factored in another element: combining the personal gift with a donation from Limited Brands Foundation, the company’s charitable arm.
Abigail presented a deal to her husband: $65 million from the family bank account and $35 million from the foundation. He agreed. This would be real money—not a promise or an estate gift. They would pay cash and do it quickly. And they didn’t realize at the time the symmetry of the donation—that it would match the $100 million he already had collectively given to the university.
As board chair, Wexner also wanted to avoid any conflicts, so he didn’t participate in the discussions with the university. Abigail approached OSU president Gordon Gee after a meeting of the Ohio State Medical Board (on which she sits). She didn’t reveal any numbers, but Gee says he had been thinking about approaching the Wexners for a donation. He, too, had a figure: $100 million.
After that, both parties say there was little drama. As Gee says, “No negotiations, no heartburn.” Abigail did pause at some point to consider the magnitude of the contribution. “It sounds like Monopoly money. It has taken 18 years for me to get comfortable with those kind of numbers,” says Abigail, who married Les in 1993. “It’s mind blowing. What an awesome thing we’re about to do.”
The money primarily will go to the medical center, the James cancer hospital and research facility and the Wexner Center for the Arts (which opened in 1989 after receiving $25 million from Wexner). Abigail estimated in October that by the end of 2011 at least $20 million would be paid by the family, with the company sending another $5 million. The plan is to pay the donation in full well before the end of the nine-year deadline.
And Wexner not only handed over $100 million, but also the inspiration for the university’s now ubiquitous marketing campaign based on his comment: “But for Ohio State, I wouldn’t have gone to college.”
Tattoogate and Gee
Like most everyone else watching the now infamous press conference on March 8 when OSU revealed football coach Jim Tressel’s transgressions about the tattoo scandal, Wexner knew the university had screwed up. And he, too, cringed at Gee’s response to a question about whether he considered firing Tressel: “Are you kidding? Let me just be very clear. I hope the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
Wexner says Gee made a couple of mistakes. First, the president should have stayed away from the press conference. Second, the tone and message were all wrong. “He wants to protect. Leaders do that. He was leading with his chin. The fire bell rang and he ran to the fire,” he says. “I would have stood back. No heroic statements. I told him, ‘We don’t have the facts.’ ”
He says he informed Gee the message should have been: It’s a serious issue and we’re taking it seriously. Wexner also says he said: “Your response becomes the story.”
As board chair, he became deeply involved in the crisis threatening the university that Gee now calls a “public tsunami” of criticism. Wexner declines to discuss much about the scandal or his involvement, except to talk about board governance. It’s not a sexy topic, but he calls it vital in avoiding a scenario of the board becoming, as he puts it, “the judge and the jury.” The trustees’ job was to follow the same procedures as if the incident involved a student or a faculty member: conduct a thorough investigation and report the findings. “I am proud of myself and the board,” he says.
“He was a calm voice. . . ,” Gee says. “His calmness kept everyone else calm. We could have unraveled, gone into 9-1-1 panic.”
As for Tressel, whom Wexner considers a friend, he says, “He’s a good guy. I trusted Jim. I’m terribly disappointed.” He says he’s never talked to him about the incident, but he believes Tressel wanted to protect his players instead of his chances to win a national championship. However, “Rules are rules,” he says. “I find it very sad. It’s like a Greek tragedy.”
Dotting the “i”
Donating $100 million to Ohio State has its privileges. One of them is having the OSU Marching Band invite you to dot the “i” during Script Ohio. On Sept. 3, during halftime of the Akron game, Wexner became the sixth so-called civilian to receive such an honor (the others include John Glenn, Jack Nicklaus, Bob Hope, Woody Hayes and Buster Douglas).
The invitation was supposed to be a surprise, coinciding with Wexner’s 74th birthday on Sept. 8. Wexner says Gee blew it, however. Gee told him prior to the event something to the effect of: “Isn’t it great you’re going to be dotting the ‘i’?” Wexner just played along.
While on the field with the band, which he describes as “damn loud,” he was nervous, hoping he wouldn’t mistakenly “dot the ‘O.’ ” So he watched the band member closest to him and mimicked her moves with gusto. Jack Kessler, a close friend and longtime business partner, saw Wexner soon after he came off the field. “He was giddy,” he says.
Relationship with Kasich
During the 2010 governor’s race, a lot of speculation centered on the fact Wexner, a huge campaign contributor to Republicans, donated nothing to John Kasich’s campaign. Was there friction between Wexner and the brash GOP candidate?
Wexner says the talk was all wrong. He explains that as OSU board chairman, it would have been a conflict to contribute to either Kasich or the incumbent, Ted Strickland.
“I was politically neutral in the governor’s race,” he says, adding any involvement would be “dangerous for the university.” He says he’s supported Kasich, a former congressman, for a long time and describes their relationship as “good in every way it could be.” He noted during an October interview that he and Abigail had plans to get together with Kasich and his wife for dinner.
Kasich reappointed Wexner in May 2011 to the OSU board for nine more years. This is Wexner’s third term, previously serving from 1988 to 1997 and 2005 to 2011. Wexner, who persuaded the Ohio legislature in 2005 to expand the board and allow for reappointments, skirted becoming ineligible for this current turn. By law, there must be a four-year wait before a reappointment if a trustee already had served six years in one term. Wexner’s second stint was five years and a few months.
As board chair, Wexner is Gee’s boss. But their relationship runs much deeper. They have been close friends since 1990, when Gee began his first tenure as OSU president (he left for Brown in 1997). And Wexner played a big role in 2007 in recruiting Gee back to lead Ohio State once more. In Gee’s office is a framed handwritten note from Wexner that reads: “Dear Gordon ‘But for’—Gordon Gee—The Ohio State University would not have received its first $100 million gift.”
Wexner served on the board during all of Gee’s first tenure at OSU. Gee says during that time, Wexner was more of a “house critic.” Now, he says, “He is a thoughtful, engaged leader.” (On the role of a board member, Wexner says, “You should not be a cheerleader.”)
They talk regularly, either by phone or during their standing personal appointment every other week. “We have a nice balance, a mutual respect,” Gee says. “We make good music.” But he adds: “He’s a force of nature. Not easy to disagree with him. Strong personality. So damn smart. He plants seeds. Asks probing questions.” Gee then begins to impersonate Wexner, waving one hand then tapping the tips of his fingers together while using a common Wexner phrase: “Now the way I would think about things. . . .”
Leadership and style are popular topics. Another is the future of Ohio State, which has embarked on several grand, transformative projects, including the $1 billion medical center expansion, that $2.5 billion fundraising campaign and a comprehensive master plan.
In addition, OSU is trying to find ways to seek financial stability in an era of state and federal budget cutbacks and fierce global competition. It’s time to get creative. For example, Ohio State is looking to lease its parking operation to a private operator for at least $375 million to hire faculty, build facilities and fund scholarships. And this past fall it became the first public university to sell 100-year bonds, which raised $500 million to help finance building projects.
Wexner also talks about connecting the university to the business world—and not thinking about commercialization as a dirty word. “The best universities are really connected to world issues. The faculty wants to work with businesses. Students want to go to school where the best faculty are and want practical application,” he says. “The university is not a business, but they do run on money. Faculty members don’t get paid on thought.”
So, he says, why not focus on your strengths—medicine, research, engineering, agriculture, among others—to make money off royalties, joint ventures and such. Like others, he’s pushing for even more collaboration between OSU and its next door neighbor, Battelle, the world’s largest private research and development institution. “Every university would die to have” that kind of relationship, he says. He adds that he called Battelle CEO Jeff Wadsworth, who also sits on the OSU board of trustees, and suggested that the university’s school of engineering should bear the name of his institution. In an e-mail, Wadsworth writes, “We are actively exploring a number of joint initiatives, including a new joint OSU-Battelle innovation center. There are great opportunities between our institutions in engineering, health care, agriculture, and energy—and the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers in these fields.”
Wexner also responds to critics who think OSU is becoming too exclusive for a public college: It should be even more so. “In competing with other universities, we need to keep the best and brightest in the state, and attract the best and brightest to come here. And then keep them here when they graduate. It is not an elitist idea. Is [OSU’s] role to educate everybody? It can, but that’s not its role. Are we underserving the average student? Come to grips with that. Average students should go to an average school. It’s very important that Ohio State get better, not bigger, because that serves the needs of Ohio.”
It’s not implausible to consider that Wexner, who’s been running his business for almost 50 years, might begin to think about a transition away from Limited Brands or civic affairs. Maybe it’s time to reflect on his accomplishments, perhaps write a book about, oh, his leadership philosophy.
In the past, he’s waved off the suggestion with nary a comment. Now, he has plenty to say about the idea of his legacy.
“It’s a bullshit idea,” he says. “I really don’t care what people will say about me when I’m gone. Who cares? How do you think about yourself? I’m more concerned about what I think when I look in the mirror. Are you proud of yourself? That’s a much healthier way to live. Live now. What will you say about yourself . . . you ducked? Do stuff in the now. I think I’m going good. I have a good record.”
And he’s not finished with big donations. Abigail offers a hint, but no more: “We’re focusing on the city. It’s way early, but we’re thinking about what’s next.”
Or as he says about the $100 million gift to OSU, “This is more like a marker along the way.”
Sidebar: A few words about money
During the course of Les Wexner’s interviews with Columbus Monthly, the discussion strayed from Ohio State into other topics. One of them was his relationship with money.
• He says he didn’t really know his net worth until 12 years after he opened that first Limited store in 1963—long after the business had become successful. “One day I asked my admin if I had any money,” he says. “She laughed at me.”
• He talks about rich people who purposefully live below their means, such as Warren Buffett, who drives an older model car and owns a modest home. “It was a conscious thought to not live below my means,” he says. “That is both personally, as far as cars and homes, but also in my commitment to donating time and money. What are your means and how do you want to live? Is it appropriate and does it have a community purpose?” He notes that he uses his estate, which reportedly cost $29 million to build in the early 1990s, to host charity events. “It has paid for itself every year for the funds it has raised for the community,” he says.
• He says he still understands the value of money, remembering how hard he worked to earn a dollar while shoveling snow as a 10-year-old. “You can’t escape yourself,” he says. “Habits come out in funny ways.” He refuses to order room service in a hotel and will surf the Internet looking for the best deals on, he says, “a camera or snow tires.” He adds, “I don’t waste food. I clean the plate."