Les Wexner considers stepping down from L Brands

Andy Downing
Leslie H. Wexner founded what became L Brands in 1963

Early Wednesday morning, news broke that L Brands founder Les Wexner is considering stepping down as the CEO of the company and selling off troubled lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret.

Prior to the announcement, Wexner has been embroiled in the scandal surrounding disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, who served as a money manager to the businessman, gaining protégé status and power, as noted in this Columbus Monthly feature, which details the pair’s relationship and subsequent falling out.

Since founding L Brands, Wexner has served as the company’s public face, as well as a dominant civic and philanthropic presence within the city. The retailer, founded in 1963, went public in 1969 and gradually evolved into a retail giant on the strength of brands like Victoria’s Secret. Early successes for the lingerie company have dulled in recent years, though, giving way to falling sales. In 2018, Victoria’s Secret didn’t even hold its annual fashion show, previously a trademark event.

No one has had as much influence on the city for as long a time period as Wexner, who chairs the powerful Columbus Partnership and has appeared on more covers of Columbus Monthly than anyone in the magazine’s 44-year history. Drive around town and the impact can be measured in the buildings that bear the family name: the Wexner Center for the Arts, Wexner Medical Center, Wexner Research Center.

In recent months, though, Wexner has been thrust into the first public scandal in his long career, owing to his close associations with Epstein, who was arrested in July 2019 on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. Denied bail, Epstein died in a New York prison in Aug. 2019 with authorities ruling it a suicide. Not that this ruling has stopped conspiracy theories from building around the circumstances of his death, which has certainly allowed room for questions.

The Wexner camp has been mostly mum on the relationship, declining to comment for the Columbus Monthly feature. Kicking off L Brands’ investor day in September 2019, however, the CEO told those gathered that he was “embarrassed” by the association. “In the present, everyone has to feel enormous regret for the advantage that was taken of so many women,” Wexner said.

L Brands was initially established as The Limited in 1963. Later, in 2002, it became Limited Brands, eventually simplifying to L Brands after the company sold off The Limited in 2013. Losing Victoria’s Secret might be the next necessary step for the company. Before the Epstein scandal emerged, L Brand stocks had already been in decline (60 percent in 2018 and another 30 percent in 2019), owing in large part to falling sales at the lingerie retailer. Reports from November 2019 noted a 7 percent drop in sales at Victoria’s Secret compared with the same quarter the previous year, continuing an established trend. Analysts and investors have in turn made calls for Wexner to sell the brand. Now, it appears he finally might.

Despite the flagging business and recent swirl of controversy, Wexner will likely remain a dominant presence locally, both as an employer (L Brands employs more than 8,000 in Central Ohio) and via his association with the Columbus Partnership.

“Something like this will raise eyebrows,” veteran political operative and former Ohio State senior vice president of communications Curt Steiner told Columbus Monthly editor Dave Ghose about Wexner’s Epstein ties, “but it’s not going to change the level of respect people have for him.”