It doesn’t take long when talking to Leslie H. Wexner to realize there’s nothing limited about his outlook for the future. At 75, he still talks about growing his business, staying involved in the community and keeping up with his rigorous workout schedule.
Retirement? The CEO of Limited Brands chuckles at the idea.
From opening his first store in 1963 to leading what today has become a multibillion-dollar business, Wexner has rarely taken a pause, developing chains, spinning them off and developing more.
Along the way, he has donated more than $100 million to Ohio State University and served as chairman of the board of trustees at OSU and at the Columbus Partnership, a group made up of Columbus-area business leaders.
Wexner recently spoke about a broad range of topics related to his work and community activities:
Q: With your recent departure from the OSU board, and (your wife) Abigail’s stepping down as chairwoman of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital board, are you easing back or simply transitioning into new civic or business ventures?
A: ... At Ohio State, it isn’t so mysterious. After so much time on the board, I think it was just enough.
Q: How do you start your day?
A: A typical day, I probably get up around 6, and three days a week I lift weights, three days a week I walk 5 miles. So I try to exercise six or seven days, unless I’m traveling. But a typical day, I spend an hour, hour-and-a-half on physical stuff.
Q: Were there moments when you dodged a bullet?
A: Oh, yes. ... Retail is very fast-moving. You could be very competent but make big mistakes.
Q: You spun off Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, The Limited, Lane Bryant at just the right time. How did you know when to pull the trigger?
A: ... In business school at Ohio State, they talked about life cycles — the notion that the businesspeople who owned stagecoaches didn’t migrate to sailing ships, and sailing ships didn’t migrate to steamships or to the aircraft industry. They were all in transportation, but they defined themselves by horses or sailing or steam.
So how do you define your business? ... I would ask myself that every year. Are we getting better at a skill that’s obsolete? We’re opening multiple apparel businesses. Do we have multiple stagecoach lines?
The idea of going from apparel to lingerie and beauty: We were competing very hard in a business that’s a good business. People always wear clothes. But the idea of getting into a business where we could be the category leader, category-dominant — nobody had defined the lingerie business, and nobody had defined the beauty business. We could transfer the skills we had and become category leaders.
It didn’t happen overnight, of course. Victoria’s Secret at first was a little experiment. But what that turned into was the three largest lingerie brands in the world: Victoria’s Secret, Pink and La Senza.
Q: Have customers changed?
A: ... Back to the beginning of the business, it was a neighborhood store, and the customer was very collegiate. They wanted preppy clothes: button-down shirts, wool skirts, knee socks, Bass Weejuns.
There are preppy customers today, but they don’t buy those things. They probably shop at Pink ... They find out about things through their smart phone or from their friends through social media. So behavior changes, but human nature doesn’t. In a fashion business, what I learned and practice is, you have to stay forever young.
I admire Walt Disney, who invented Mickey Mouse in his 20s and, when he was 60, invented Disneyland. As he got older, he knew the customer and had a youthful attitude.
Q: Do you ever see a point when Limited Brands might bring back some of its manufacturing from overseas plants and employ Americans?
A: About half of our business is beauty. Most of it is made in Ohio, made in the U.S., made in New Albany. There’s more coming back. I can see it, I can see that it happens, I can’t see when it happens in time. But it’s obvious that God didn’t say everything would be made in China forever.
Q: Do you see either online sales or social media ever overtaking bricks-and-mortar stores?
A: No, I don’t think so. ... People always want to get together — we’re kind of herd animals and want to see what people really look like, what other people are wearing, where they’re shopping — and (we like) instant gratification.
... Apple’s a stunning example of that. There’s nothing they sell that you have to touch, but their stores are mobbed. My kids are an example of that. They’re constantly wanting to see what’s next and (go to the Apple store).
Q: What do you see in central Ohio’s future?
A: We have enormous natural advantages. We are the population center of North America — that’s an enormous advantage. We’re the state capital of a major state. We have the third-largest teaching research university here, and it ain’t going to move. And we have the largest private research institute here, Battelle.
We’re very close to Boston in number of college students per capita, and if you have a young population, people will perpetually come to your neighborhood. And the universities give us an international edge. As we’re expanding (at Limited Brands), we’re finding business students that can speak Turkish or Russian. They’re all here.
The community, private sector and public sector, we’re very focused. We’ve got four seasons, a pretty favorable climate. If we can’t make something out of all that ... well!