By George, I’m impressed

21 Apr

It’s funny to consider my reactions to these cases. Recently, we read about Nordstrom, a high-end retailer with beautiful goods. After learning about its practices and how the company treats employees, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t want to work there. (Although I’m not in retail so it’s fairly unlikely.) And then we read about The Men’s Warehouse, an off-price men’s retailer, and I am thoroughly impressed. My only previous experience with the company is seeing the George Zimmer commercials, and being aware of the Reno store, but that’s it. And I came to the conclusion I would want to work there, that I would actually be excited to work there. (Although I’m not in retail so it’s fairly unlikely.)

What is so appealing about a men’s clothing retailer? Because it’s not about the clothing, it’s about the culture and the values, and embodying them as managers. George Zimmer has it absolutely correct: If you want your employees to treat customers well, you have to treat the employees well first. You have to value them.

Like my former boss, Lynn Atcheson (who seems to come up again and again on my blog), Zimmer not only espouses servant leadership, but also models it. I was shocked at Zimmer’s 1996 salary as chairman for the company he founded: $420,000. While that’s high compared to a wardrobe consultant’s salary, it’s modest for a chairman, even when adjusted to 2010 dollars. Like Lynn, Zimmer knows how important it is for management to “walk the talk” (an expression I actually learned from her). When I worked for Washoe Med, bonuses were not typical, and only went to the senior management team. When Lynn received her bonus, she shared it with each of us. Because of course, as she recognized, she would not be receiving the bonus without our efforts. How many leaders do you know who would do that? Zimmer has the same idea. He essentially told his compensation committee he didn’t need more salary. (And after all, he does have $100 million in stock. But many leaders don’t let that stop them from asking for more.)

Compare Zimmer’s salary with the disgusting pay package that the venal chairman and CEO of Abercrombie  & Fitch received in 2008. He also happened to be named one of the five Highest Paid Worst Performers of 2008.

My husband is an academic, so he never wears suits. So it was interesting to ask him if he’d ever shopped at The Men’s Warehouse. He said “Yes, I bought my blue blazer there” – which he only wears to one or two academic conferences a year, one of only two formal jackets he owns. So I asked him what he thought of his service experience there, which occurred almost 10 years ago. I fully expected he wouldn’t remember, given it was so long ago. And he unhesitatingly and enthusiastically responded “Excellent!”

Best validation I can think of for the veracity of this case study.*

* 2010 update: The Men’s Warehouse continued to grow its revenues over the past five years. However, in FY2009, revenues were down by 4 percent – given the economy, no surprise whatsoever. It expects to have single-digit profits in Q1 2010. Many of the people mentioned in the 13-year-old case are still with the company, including George Zimmer and Charlie Bresler.

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