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Men’s Wearhouse founder is ousted

The face of the company and executive chairman, George Zimmer, has been fired

By Anne D’Innocenzio
Associated Press

NEW YORK Men’s Wearhouse doesn’t like the way its founder looks anymore.

The men’s clothier said Wednesday that it has fired the face of the company and its executive chairman, George Zimmer, 64, who appeared in many of its TV commercials with the slogan “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”

The company announced the move in a terse statement that gave no reason for the abrupt firing of Zimmer, who built Men’s Wearhouse Inc. from one small Texas store using a cigar box as a cash register to one of North America’s largest men’s clothing sellers with 1,143 locations.

The firing appears to end the career of one of TV’s most recognizable pitchmen. Zimmer’s slogan became almost a cultural touchstone, and his natty but down-to-earth charm made dressing sharply feel more accessible to men.

Zimmer said in a written statement that over the past several months he and the company’s board disagreed about the company’s direction.

“Over the last 40 years, I have built The Men’s Wearhouse into a multi-billion dollar company with amazing employees and loyal customers who value the products and service they receive at The Men’s Wearhouse,” he said in a statement. But he noted that “instead of fostering the kind of dialogue in the boardroom that has, in part, contributed to our success, the board has inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns by terminating me as an executive officer.”

The bad blood spooked investors, who drove Men’s Wearhouse’s stock down 53 cents to $36.94. The stock is still near its 52-week high of $38.59 and ended Tuesday up about 20 percent since the start of the year.

Beyond creating a successful company, Zimmer is known as something of a cowboy in the business world.

He brought in spiritual leader Deepak Chopra as a member of the company’s board in 2004. He put his fortune to work behind California’s failed Proposition 19 in 2010, which would have legalized marijuana in California, where he lived. And Men’s Wearhouse didn’t conduct background checks on new hires because Zimmer believed that everyone deserves a second chance.

“He’s one of a kind,” said Richard Jaffe, a Stifel Nicolaus analyst. “He’s an entrepreneurial visionary. … He made looking terrific available for every man in America.”

Calls to company executives and board members were immediately referred to a company spokesperson, who declined to comment beyond the release.

Jaffe speculated that Zimmer, who handed over his title as CEO to Douglas Ewert in 2011, may have had difficulty in letting go of the company’s reins.

“Clearly, something happened abruptly and fairly dramatically,” he said. Jaffe also speculated that perhaps the company was looking for a new spokesman so it could target younger shoppers.

Like many clothing retailers, Men’s Wearhouse saw its sales and profits battered during the recession, but over the last two years the company’s business has been recovering.

For the latest year ended Feb. 2, the company’s revenue rose 4.4 percent to $2.48 billion. Net income rose 5.3 percent to $131.7 million.

The firing comes a week after Men’s Wearhouse reported that its fiscal first-quarter profit increased 23 percent.

Also highlighting the suddenness of the firing: The company’s website still prominently spotlighted Zimmer for much of Wednesday, calling him “The Man Behind The Brand” and linking to YouTube videos of “the man in action.” The pages were still available by midafternoon, though a prominent link from the site’s front page had been removed.

“This is very rare to fire a founder. Founders are generally entrenched in the company,” said Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance, a board advisory firm.

The company went public in 1992, and the company has been cited by Fortune magazine as one of the top 100 best companies to work for.

Zimmer owned 1.8 million shares of Men’s Wearhouse as of the company’s May 9 proxy filing, a 3.5 percent stake.

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