4 Lessons We Can Learn From George Zimmer
The name George Zimmer might not ring a bell for you. Perhaps you directed yourself to this article out of your interest for the the George Zimmerman case and now realize your mistake. But as soon as I conjure the words "You're going to like the way you look, I guarantee it," chances are you know exactly who I'm talking about.
George Zimmer built Men's Wearhouse from the ground up. In the 70s, Zimmer was selling suits from the trunk of his car. Today, more than one in three suits in North America is sold by Men's Wearhouse. Famously unconventional, Zimmer may in fact be one of the most interesting businessmen around. On Wednesday, Men's Wearhouse abrubtly dismissed Zimmer from his position as Chairman. While the details are still elusive, the far-from-amicable arrangement appears to have been caused at least in part by a contentious boardroom disagreement over the direction of the company.
In the coming days the world will assuredly hear of this matter in more detail as the company and it's founder work through the details of their bittersweet breakup. But for now, let this pundit and former Men's Wearhouse employee raise the journalistic glass to this man and legend.
Here are four things the world can learn from George Zimmer.
1. Being a Visionary and Being Realistic Are Not Mutually Exclusive
You might think that Zimmer is the kind of guy who loves to stand in a full-length mirror watching a short, bald Italian tailor take his measurements — and you'd be wrong. Many entrepreneurs hold supreme enthusiasm and groundless hope for their startups, which can lead them to assume that others share their same passion and that they will be successful as a result. Not so for George Zimmer. He understands that most men think of going to buy menswear in the same way they think of going to the dentist.
Yes, he had a vision, but it wasn't one of selling the most outrageous suits or of pushing the hypothetical fashion envelope. Instead, he offered a non-stuffy, customer-oriented atmosphere in which men could make realistically few fashion decisions and walk out looking realistically good for a realistic price in a realistic amount of time.
2. Serve the People Who Serve You
Nobody cares as much about his corporate culture as George Zimmer. Nobody.
Like some stuffy executives, Zimmer had a corporate jet. But he didn't use his jet to avoid the public, or to get more legroom, or even for prestige. In December, each district comprised of several Men's Wearhouse stores holds a massive Christmas party, for which the company pays and for which employees rent themselves tuxedos. And Zimmer, with the help of his handy-dandy corporate jet, regularly attends around 30 of these parties each year (you do the math) in order to mingle with his ground-level employees.
You can pretty much count on one finger the number of U.S. companies who mention the "self-actualization" of their employees in their mission. And I bet you can't find many executives (even hippie executives) who refuse on principle to get background checks on their employees. Or who find reason to put spiritual leaders on their boards of directors.
Does this sell suits? I'd like to think so, but I'd also be willing to wager that Zimmer would contend that the welfare of his employees is a goal in itself.
3. Customer Loyalty is a Two Way Street
If you stain your shirt this badly, it's probably your fault. And even if it isn't, it certainly is not the problem of whoever sold you the shirt. So if the customer alleges that his shirt had wine stains on it when he bought it, is it true "the customer is always right?" I would say no.
But fortunately for you unscrupulous purchasers of menswear out there, George Zimmer holds the classic mantra of trust in the customer at the level of conviction. He really does "guarantee it." Reflecting the principles held by its founder, Men's Wearhouse will nealy always suffer a monetary loss on a customer before watching them walk out the door unhappy. During my tenure as a Men's Wearhouse employee, one of my coworkers drove eight hours round-trip in order to deliver eight missing neckties to a wedding party.
No matter what Zimmer's fate at Men's Wearhouse, his hard-earned reputation remind's us that no matter what business you in, you're in the people business.
4. Corporate Branding is Complicated; Personal Branding is Not
Men's Wearhouse has a brand problem, plain and simple. The name invokes the idea of a large building used for storing dry goods or a manufacturing line. Unless you are a mob boss or silk smuggler, can you really conceive of buying a quality suit in a warehouse? No. Can the company fix this without changing its name? Again, no.
And yet, Men's Wearhouse's advertising is among the most recognizable anywhere. And the most memorable aspect of the company's branding — Zimmer himself. No matter how much the store's name tries to tell you that the menswear inside is mediocre, Zimmer's gravelly voice and forthcoming personality somehow has the ability to convince you that only the prices are below par.
If you can't hack business marketing, then make sure that your personal branding genuine, straight forward, and downright respectable