If anyone knows what Victoria’s secret is, it’s Les Wexner. But, so far, he’s not telling.
Leslie H. Wexner, chairmand and CEO of Limited Brands, Inc.
The self-made billionaire and diehard Ohio State Buckeye has served as CEO of Limited Brands, Inc. -- an empire that includes Express, Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret -- for nearly 50 years. What started as a small women’s clothing store in Columbus, Ohio, in 1963 is now a Fortune 500 company. With its brand names found in virtually every shopping mall across America, Limited Brands generates more than $10 billion in annual revenue.
Despite the tremendous success and enormous wealth Wexner has enjoyed for decades, he remains true to the values he learned growing up in the Columbus Jewish community. Wexner will often refer to the moral compass that guides his life, his solid faith as a Jew, and the importance of living ethically.
On his company’s Web site, Wexner declares, “Limited Brands has long been recognized as a values-based organization. We are committed to building a culture that fosters mutual respect, open communication and sharing. As an enterprise...we consistently try to do what's right.”
In an industry filled with glitz and glamour, Wexner remains remarkably down to earth. For decades, he has worked to strike a difficult balance between profitability and personal accountability, a necessary symmetry that only became clear to him as he approached middle age.
“I asked myself, around my 40th birthday, what would they say about you when you're gone?” Wexner said recently. “I came to the conclusion that what people say about you when you're gone doesn't matter. When you look in the mirror, are you seeing someone you'd like to meet, someone you're proud of?”
Wexner admits he couldn’t answer that question affirmatively at the time. “My model was all work, no play. Rack up the points!”
Wexner family with foundation leaders.
He started to make life changes in 1984 when, at age 47, he established The Wexner Foundation to foster Jewish leadership. The Foundation has grown to create a new generation of Jewish lay leaders, professionals and Israeli government officials.
As Wexner explains, “There is a difference between a leader who is Jewish and a Jewish leader.” Jewish leaders, he says, are grounded in their Judaism and not only lead with, but are also led by, a fundamental code of ethics.
Shortly after the Foundation was established, Wexner’s personal life began to take new direction. In 1993, at age 55, he married Abigail S. Koppel, a Manhattan attorney. The two settled in New Albany, Ohio, where Limited Brands, Inc., is headquartered. Fifteen years later, the Wexners are proud parents to four young children.
By their parents’ example, the Wexner children have been raised to pursue social justice and often accompany the couple to charity and volunteer events. Mrs. Wexner is highly involved with several organizations to promote children and women’s health and prevent family violence. Mr. Wexner says he and his wife believe in engaging their children in the work they do so that, “they see we talk the talk and walk the walk. We want each of them to grow up to become a whole person.”
The Wexner children were present last month a gala at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York City where their father was presented with Hillel’s Renaissance Award for his “bold vision and transformative initiatives that enrich the campus, the Jewish community and the world.”
Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone (left) and Chairman Julian Sandler (right) with Les and Abigail Wexner.
“Les Wexner’s vision for the renaissance of the Jewish people was a re-born Hillel and a methodical approach to leadership development. He has succeeded in both of these objectives,” said Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone. “Hillel is blessed with many Wexner graduates among our professionals and lay leaders. They have enriched our Hillel movement with the gifts of their training, wisdom, and leadership.”
As a member of Hillel’s International Board of Governors, Wexner has provided critical support and counsel to Hillel as it has transformed itself to better serve students. He was the principal benefactor of the Wexner Jewish Student Center, built at his alma mater, The Ohio State University, in 1996. And many Hillel students have gone on to become Wexner fellows and then leaders in the Jewish community.
“If Jewish leaders don't understand the value of leading from an ethical and moral perspective and don't try to teach and influence their followers [that way], then I think we're not fulfilling our obligation,” Wexner said at the gala dinner. Pointing to historical examples of Jewish suffering at the hands of immoral and dangerous leaders, Wexner reiterated the significance of understanding one’s values before following along.
“The Jews are the canaries in the coal mines,” he said. “When Jews are picked on or isolated in any way, society better pay attention. An attack on Jews, on Judaism and on Israel is an attack on the fundamental morals of society.”
But for all his wisdom and years at the helm of Limited Brands, Wexner never considered himself a leader. His drive to succeed came from a basic desire.
“I didn’t want to be poor,” Wexner told gala participants. “I came from a modest background. We had to work. It was a good motivator.”
Wexner’s parents, Bella and Harry, owned a general merchandise store called Leslie’s. At 26, Wexner was ready to follow in their footsteps and pursue his own entrepreneurial career. He borrowed $5,000 from his aunt to open a women’s apparel store in town which he named The Limited. Six years later, the company went public, trading shares at $7.25 a piece. By 1982, The Limited, which had expanded to include Express, Lane Bryant and Victoria’s Secret, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
But as his fortune has continued to grow, Wexner prefers to focus on his company’s more profound achievements such as being recognized by Fortune magazine as the world’s most admired specialty retailer in 2003. For Wexner, a well-lived life is not about money in the bank. As he says, “Who sold the most togas in Rome doesn’t matter…you want to do good in the here and now.”
Maybe Wexner is letting on that “Victoria’s secret” isn’t just a company’s bottom line, but its corporate values and its contribution to society at large.