It may be years before Columbus understands the significance of the billionaire retail tycoon's achievements and contributions.
Editor’s note: Last week, Les Wexner stepped down as the CEO and chairman of the retail empire he founded nearly 60 years ago. Despite his difficulties over the past couple of years, no one can deny that he’s shaped Central Ohio in a remarkable way, and back in 1994, Columbus Monthly took a deep look at his accomplishments and achievements, which continued to grow after this article was published.
Thirty years ago, Les Wexner took an idea and $5,000 in borrowed money to try to make his mark in a tough, ever-changing business that grinds up ordinary people. And Wexner made it—in a phenomenal, storybook way. He built a retailing empire, the Limited, through a combination of savvy and smarts and sheer intensity of concentration and effort. He rarely is satisfied, “especially if you work for him," says Wexner friend and fellow Columbus Titan John B. McCoy. “I think the best way to describe him is that he wants to be second to none." Wexner's business has been the solid center of his life.
But now there's Abigail, his bride of one year and the soon-to-be mother of his child. (Baby Wexner is due in July.) And he sounds like a changed man. About the baby, he says, “I couldn't be happier, and I'm looking forward to being a father." Asked about marriage, Wexner smiles and says, “I feel like I have been married for 100 years." A comfortable 100 years? “The happiest years."
He adds that he and Abigail are extremely compatible. "We are so much alike: values, how we see people, things we appreciate, things we like to do. I have known Abigail for four years, we don't fight.” Except maybe over politics. Abigail is a Democrat; Les is a Republican. "We get into some discussions,” Abigail says, laughing. "He keeps trying to convince me I'm a liberal Republican and not a conservative Democrat."
Friends say Wexner is different, more relaxed than in the past. Abigail says, “I could see the day he decided to be married, he changed; he was perfectly comfortable.” She adds, "I think he wondered if he would ever have a family. I think he found some peace.”
The domestic life seems to agree with Wexner.
All well and good, of course, but those not shy of self-interest will wonder: What's it mean to us? How will Les Wexner's new life, particularly the arrival of a child, affect the time he spends on his business, on his civic and philanthropic issues? Wexner himself says he is uncertain, adding, "I'm sure parenting takes time and thought."
Who could blame him if he disengaged a bit? Wexner has done more than his share for Columbus. In fact; his impact on the city is immense and unrivaled. A handful of Columbus families—the Wolfes, the Galbreaths, the Jeffreys, the Lazaruses—have made considerable, even huge, contributions. But Wexner overshadows them all.
Here's a quick overview of the Wexner Era to date:
There's the Limited, which provides paychecks to thousands of Central Ohioans. It is the area's largest private employer (with about 11,500 full- and part-time workers) and fourth biggest overall after the state of Ohio, the federal government and Ohio State University.
There's Wexner's philanthropy, which is almost too vast to comprehend. Or, as Rabbi Maurice Corson, president of the Wexner Foundation, says, “It is too big to put your arms around." Beyond his own giving, Wexner has played a large role in elevating Columbus' overall philanthropy. Two examples are the Columbus Foundation, which attracts and administers charitable trusts, and the United Way of Franklin County. Since his involvement, each organization has blossomed. The Columbus Foundation is among the top foundations of its kind in the country; the United Way, which has benefited dramatically from Wexner's introduction of an annual, high-profile gala to reward $5,000 donors, ranks second in per-capita giving in the nation.
There's his role in the arts. His most visible, most significant contribution was $25 million to Ohio State University to help build the Wexner Center for the Arts, which has received international recognition that started before ground was ever broken. The Wexner Center also has attracted such superstars as Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Maya Lin to create and teach at OSU.
There's New Albany Communities, which is drawing considerable attention to Central Ohio with its million-dollar plus, Georgian-style homes, grand country club and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Wexner's own holdings there, about 375 acres, include Abigail House appraised at $29.6 million. (Talk about community good? Wexner personally pads the county coffers by $517,357 in property tax.)
There's Columbus City Center, the upscale Downtown mall. Wexner is credited with persuading his friend, developer Alfred Taubman, to step in and complete the long-slumbering project. With no City Center, Downtown Columbus would be in decline and the Downtown Lazarus store merely a memory.
And there's his attitude and style, intangible qualities that have had significant impact. Wexner is a visionary, a big thinker, a patron by instinct. He pushes people to think boldly. Says his friend and business associate Jack Kessler, "He sees things five to seven years from now. Sometimes he gets frustrated when others don't see it as clearly as he does." Adds McCoy, CEO and chairman of Banc One Corp., “And when he gets an idea, you hold your breath, because you know you are about to jump on an express train."
Wexner has proven over the past decade that he is keenly interested in Columbus. And it's highly unlikely that his recent jump into domesticity will dramatically alter his commitment to his business or to the community. In fact, he's deeply involved in various projects—COSI's proposed move, the development of two regional malls—that will continue to change the civic and economic landscape of Central Ohio.
Here's a look at Wexner's current activities.
A lot has been said about the 60,000 square-foot manse named after Abigail Wexner. Its size has drawn some criticism, which causes Wexner to bristle a bit. He says he built his home by following the example of John Galbreath, the late founder of the Galbreath Company, who invited the public to his Darby Dan Farm. "He was welcoming to the community," Wexner says. “I think there's a lesson in that.” Wexner has opened his house to various community functions, such as the United Way and United Jewish Appeal, and will continue to do so. He says, "If I never shared it with friends or with the community, I think that would be wrong."
But Wexner's top civic priority today is COSI's proposed move from East Broad Street to the Scioto River's west bank. "COSI is a major asset to the community," he says. “It is not as exciting as having a professional football team in Columbus ... but the community should build on the strength of things we have." He has promised to give $5 million to the science museum to help it relocate.
A few years ago a $250,000 study, which Wexner paid for, recommended that COSI move to the Veterans Memorial site and the Columbus Museum of Art shift to nearby and empty Central High School. They would be anchors for a riverfront park. “The central park supports the Downtown and the west-side neighborhood," Wexner says. "It's a very good plan."
Location of COSI and the museum is important, he says. “I believe the development of the peninsula ... has to be thought out very carefully, because how it is developed will impact the character of the community for the next 100 years."
Wexner is no fan of Veterans Memorial, saying it isn't a very good building and “not a proper memorial to veterans.” But he thinks COSI and Vets could coexist if the North Hall, the exhibition space, is torn down. He says with the opening of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the hall is obsolete and a financial liability: “If I were the county [which owns Veterans Memorial], I would think I would want to get out of the exhibition space business, because it is going to cost the citizens a fortune in the future."
The art museum also could receive a substantial Wexner gift—similar to the one he has promised COSI—"if it gets its act together," he says. The museum, which is looking for a new executive director, has stalled the past few years on finding a new, larger home.
The clock is ticking on the COSI move, however. State capital improvement money, at least $18 million, is earmarked for COSI, but only if a business plan is in place before July. By early February, COSI was struggling to complete one. If COSI fails, the state money could go elsewhere, which would be a damaging and embarrassing blow to the city.
Discussing COSI, Wеxner recalls when he strongly pushed in the mid 1980s for the community to bankroll a state performing arts center in Downtown Columbus. The arts organizations and politicians didn't rally around the idea, which Wexner was willing to stake with $5 million. Today, the arts center is in Cincinnati. That “lost opportunity," as he calls it, still irritates him. He says inaction over COSI could be déjà vu, with a state center of science and industry ending up in Toledo or Akron, and, “We will have screwed up again."
Wexner's interest in Downtown riverfront development is not new; he's been pushing it for years. In fact, he says that in 1988 he told then-Mayor Buck Rinehart he would buy the Central High School site from the Columbus Public Schools and then donate it to the city of Columbus. "And Buck said that's a great idea," Wexner says. “About three weeks later I read a headline in the newspaper that the city had offered to buy it [for $15 million] and the school board accepted."
Wexner still seems perplexed that Rinehart never pursued his offer. "You believe that?" he adds. “I thought that was a good idea. The school board would get the money and the community would get the site." (Rinehart did not return phone calls for comment.)
As for the other major civic agenda item, building an arena, Wexner has bad news for those Central Ohio sports fans who pray he will become as interested in owning an NBA or NHL franchise as he is about endowing arts organizations. He says the arena, which he believes should be at the old Ohio Penitentiary site, is important, but he's not the guy to lead the effort. "I have no aspiration to be a major league sports owner."
It wasn't that long ago when Wexner apparently had no aspiration to play any part in the Columbus civic scene. He spent his time building his business, ensconced behind the walls of the Limited headquarters.
But then in the early 1980s Wexner made an abrupt and dramatic splash into the civic pond. He was unlike anything Columbus' team-oriented old guard had dealt with before. Wexner claimed Columbus had "the worst Downtown in America” and said the beloved Ohio Theatre should be razed. (He now calls Downtown "above average.") He introduced a thoughtful and controversial six-point Downtown plan and also promised $20 million for a planned $50 million arts fund-raising campaign.
Not everybody rejoiced at his entrance. He was called a loose cannon and stubborn—interested only in his projects and not the entire city. Rinehart said dealing with him was like "talking to a tree.” Some community types figured he'd get frustrated and move to New York.
And at one point in the late 1980s, there was a strong perception that the civic scene had been split into two camps: Wexner on one side, and the Wolfes, longtime owners of The Dispatch, on the other. It seemed as if nothing was getting done.
Today, civic insiders say Wexner has changed. Kessler says that Wexner learned a lesson from his early civic battles: "It's not like running the Limited.” McCoy says Wexner understands the need to develop consensus.
The Limited's role as a major guarantor for AmeriFlora is seen as an olive branch extended from Wexner to the Wolfes, who spearheaded the 1992 celebration. As one source says about the Wexner/Wolfe divide, "There is still a great frustration with one another, and a cultural divide that is as wide as the Grand Canyon. [But] you are not going to see any more body blocks."
Wexner doesn't buy into the conventional wisdom. His style has changed some, he says, but it has nothing to do with consensus. "I think I always appreciated consensus. But I'd make a terrible politician because I don't begin by wanting consensus. In my view, the lesson I have learned is that I am a little less candid on civic issues." He refers to the state performing arts center again. “On some community issues, the issue became me and not the issue."
And that experience has caused him to step back a bit on the COSI move. He says. "If we push it too hard, the headline will be, 'Wexner puts money in COSI and he is now dictating locations and it's a cramdown.’ " So now he says he's willing to let the plan sink or swim on its merit. “If nobody gets the idea, or nobody wants the idea, then it's opportunity lost."
As for the Wolfe/Wexner war, Wеxner shrugs. "I hear it. But I never felt that. If anything, I sense that people try to bait us both.” He says he has worked well with family patriarch John W. Wolfe and Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe on the Columbus Foundation board and that John F.'s wife, Ann, was “very welcoming" toward Abigail. He describes the Wolfes as "friends."
And about AmeriFlora, Wexner says he played "the good soldier," even though he didn't believe the extravaganza would work. "I couldn't believe people were going to come from around the world to Columbus, Ohio, to see a flower show.” And he said so. “But people said I was wrong. A lot of bright people had looked at this, so maybe I was wrong. I decided to go along."
AmeriFlora lost untold millions of dollars. Even so, he now calls it a mixed blessing. "The fact the community could coalesce could be viewed as a positive. It's sad that it wasn't the success we had hoped for, but it sets the foundation for the next—and maybe the next will be more successful."
His role as chairman and president of the Limited is, as he says, his "first, second and third job.” His legendary attention to detail has helped make the Limited the world's largest women's apparel retailer, with 19 divisions—not all of which sell women's clothes—and more than 100,000 employees and 4,600 stores. The Limited is among the top national success stories of the past 20 years and has earned Wexner the title of Retail Genius.
But today the overall business is stagnant; many of the newer, smaller businesses are thriving, such as Bath & Body Works, but can't overcome the struggles of the core, large divisions—Limited Stores and Lerner New York. The darling of investors and analysts no longer has the Midas touch on Wall Street. The stock price fell sharply throughout 1993, from the high 20s to a low of $16.75 by late last year. And same-store sales for 1993 as compared to the previous year are flat. (Same-store sales are figures for stores open more than one year.)
The business press has been critical of Wexner. A 1993 issue of BusinessWeek questioned whether he had taken his eye off the ball, having been distracted by his other interests—New Albany, his house, etc. Other factors cited include inventory and quality problems, in addition to the loss of key personnel. And the recession didn't help.
However, the Limited empire is hardly in danger of toppling. The business, which has no operating debt, is rock solid, with 1993 sales of $7.2 billion. In 1993, Wex ner says, the company made an estimated $390 million after taxes. And Wexner took a step in trying to resolve the woes of Limited Stores and Lerner by announcing last November that 360 stores would be closed, remodeled or downsized by the end of 1995. Wexner still expects overall sales to hit $10 billion in the next few years.
After so much success, it must be frustrating for Wexner to try to win over the Wall Street analysts who make the closely followed stock recommendations. "The thing with mental maturity, you learn to take the better with the bitter. It's hard to have back-to-back perfect seasons," he says. But, “We have grown a business in 30 years larger than Federated Department Stores grew in 120 years and we are more profitable than they have ever been, ever were, in their history."
Wexner, who is said to work 75 hours a week, adds, "Some days when I am slapping myself around, I have to say: ‘This isn't exactly a failure—you're not exactly a failure.' The Limited will continue to create jobs, careers, opportunities—largely in Central Ohio.” The company estimates that it will employ about 1,500 more people (12,900) in Central Ohio this year than in 1993.
Another astonishing business venture by Wexner is New Albany Communities, which he calls a “significant investment." Wexner is proud of New Albany, of his idea that Columbus would respond to a new, higher-than-upscale level of community development. "I'm not bashful about it,” he says, and he ticks off names of some of the notables who have visited: Michael Eisner, president of Walt Disney Company; Prince Charles's secretary (twice), and the prince's personal architectural adviser. Charles himself may make a trip.
Wexner then is adamant about a point. "Clearly, I want the world to know that I didn't begin with wanting to plan a development and then live in the development,” he says. "I wanted to live in New Albany, and then [I decided] someone is going to develop this and I hope they don't trash it."
Wexner—heavily involved in the initial development and marketing campaign—has backed away from the hands-on work, spending about one day a month on New Albany matters. Wexner's eye for detail is still in focus, though. At Wexner's suggestion, for instance, the formal dining room at New Albany Country Club is undergoing cosmetic changes to lighten the atmosphere. Gerald McCue, former dean of Harvard University's graduate school of design and a New Albany adviser, says, "One of the things that makes New Albany unique is its kind of elegance, a commitment to quality that few [developers] would find necessary."
The New Albany Company, which is developing New Albany Communities, has been criticized for its marketing campaign, especially for suggesting that its $350,000-and-up-up-up housing isn't only for rich people. "There will be more affordable housing,” Wexner says. "You can't do everything at once."
But Wexner is thinking long-term. Jack Kessler, who heads the New Albany Company, says of the 5,000 acres acquired in the past decade, only the country club community—1,200 acres with an average of about one home per acre—is being developed. (More than 400 lots have been sold.) The rest of the 3,800 acres has been put on the back burner.
Of the remaining acreage, Wexner says, "Some of the land will be left undeveloped for years and years. I wouldn't be surprised if it was vacant 10 years from now.” That's an extraordinary commitment, considering the unknown amount of money (hundreds of millions?) Wexner has invested in New Albany.
In 10 years, Wexner will control a significant chunk of northeast Franklin County. New Albany's place as a world-class community should be cemented. And, thanks to Wexner, people will be exiting I-270 on a new Stelzer Road ramp to shop, work and live in a nationally recognized "edge city."
That's if all goes according to plan.
The Limited Inc. owns about 2,400 acres in Franklin County—a substantial amount near the company headquarters on Morse Road. (The market value of Limited property is $214 million, of which more than half—$122 million—is tax exempt, according to the Franklin County Auditor's office. It pays $2.3 million in property tax a year.)
Wexner's vision for the Morse/Stelzer roads site is the best suburban office park the city has seen, competitive with the best seen in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago."
The development is spurred by massive roadway construction on and around I-270 that is estimated to cost $228 million when completed by 2003. (Most of the work will be finished by 1996.) The Limited is chipping in about $18 million for the project, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Plans call for mid-rise office buildings, a hotel or motel, apartments, health facility and a 24-screen movie theater. The Limited also is in a joint venture with Columbus-based Don M. Casto Organization, which is one of the nation's largest developers and owners of shopping centers, to build a 400,000-square-foot strip center that will include Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.
The centerpiece of the office park will be a regional mall designed by Taubman, who is Wexner's partner in the Tuttle Crossing mall planned for Hilliard. Details on both malls, which should be similar to City Center, are sketchy. A Taubman representative has said design work will begin this year, with the malls perhaps opening in late 1996.
Wexner also controls Central Ohio's other prime mall spot, at the corner of Sawmill Road and Rt. 161 in northwest Columbus. Wexner has said he has no short-term plans for the site, which the Limited bought for $10 million in August, 1993, and it possibly could be sold. The purchase, coupled with the other two regional malls, seemed to have been strategic, as well; it effectively killed plans for another major mall, especially one that had been discussed in southern Delaware County in the Polaris development. By the end of the decade, Wexner may be the Mall King of Central Ohio.
The Limited's holdings on East Broad Street near the Licking County border also are prime for development. The area around its Lane Bryant and Victoria's Secret distribution centers—reportedly more than 500 acres—has been zoned for a mix of retail, warehouse/distribution, open space, multifamily housing and apartments.
The growth in the northeast, Wexner says, will be controlled and managed, unlike northwest Central Ohio, where “The stuff is planted, but not in any organized way."
The story is legend now: In 1981, Les Wexner found himself in the middle of a summer snowstorm on top of a Colorado mountain. He wasn't properly clothed, and the situation became worse when he got lost. He thought about death, asking himself if he would be proud of his accomplishments. He didn't like the answer.
Today, facing the same situation, Wexner would answer differently. "I think I have more balance in my life. I am much less selfish.” He adds, “In many ways, it is easy to write a check. But [you have] to be thoughtful and not overbearing in the community, to find the right balance between being a team player ... yet not being political or wishy-washy in what you believe."
Columbus is where he will continue to find that balance. “I am centered here," he says. He seems stung, in fact, by past speculation that he would abandon Columbus. Wexner feels he has proven his commitment to his hometown, that, as he says, “I didn't take my toys and leave."
And he adds, "At this point, I think I have enough years of consistent performance. It's like the record's the record.”
This story originally appeared in the March 1994 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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