Familiar Faces and Founders Who Flee

by Bob Schwartz

George Zimmer
George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse, has been terminated from the company he grew—on the day of its annual meeting.

He moved (was kicked upstairs) from CEO to the position of executive chairman in 2011, and he still has a 3.5% stake in the company. It is thought that he may have had some trouble letting go of the reins—a not unusual circumstance—and his firing is the result of the attendant conflicts.

Everyone with a television knows the bearded Zimmer, and has heard him promise that when you wear one of their suits, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.” And with 1,239 stores in the Men’s Wearhouse family, many have seen one of its outlets.

There are shareholders to please, a different situation than with Zimmer’s first store in Houston forty years ago. Times are changing for suits, ironically the very fact that Zimmer highlights in the latest series of ads. So if a fresh take was called for, both in the business and the marketing, he may have been seen as standing in the way.

You know George Zimmer. But do you know John Sculley?

Everybody who studies or practices big business does, but few others any more. In 1983, Steve Jobs recruited Sculley from Pepsico to run Apple. Differences almost immediately began cropping up about exactly how Apple was going to reach the next level on its way to make money (Sculley) or make money by changing the world (Jobs). It is reported that Sculley wanted to emphasize the Apple II until the Macintosh was powerful enough to fulfill its promise. No doubt where Jobs stood; just watch the historic Macintosh “1984” ad that ran during the Super Bowl that year. Jobs was demoted in 1985 and quickly left the company. Sculley would leave Apple in 1993, after a few successes but mostly under a cloud. Jobs would, of course, return to Apple—demonstrating in the long run just how potent a founder’s combination of entrepreneurship, vision and hard-nosed business can be. Today, practically everybody on the planet knows Steve Jobs.

It’s sometimes true that founders get it, but can’t take it to the next level. It’s also sometimes true that those outsiders who think they can take it to the next level can’t because they don’t get it.

George Zimmer didn’t sell the world’s most popular and powerful digital devices, actually changing the world. He sold men’s suits. Getting that isn’t so very tough, so he may be expendable. On the other hand, he has proven that over the course of four very tumultuous decades, he did know how to sell those suits.

Sometimes founders really can’t be trusted to evolve themselves or their offerings for a changing market and world. But the possibility that they can shouldn’t summarily be dismissed, and neither perhaps should they. George Zimmer may not be back. But we know who he is, to the benefit of Men’s Wearhouse.

Do founders sometimes know what they’re doing? George Zimmer? Steve Jobs? John who?