Thursday brought an end of an era in the fashion world and in Central Ohio.
Columbus-based retailer L Brands announced that CEO Les Wexner is retiring and the company is selling off lingerie company Victoria’s Secret.
The billionaire retail mogul is the longest-serving CEO among the Fortune 500, but he leaves behind a complicated legacy.
An 'Intense' Businessman
Wexner was born in 1937 and spent his earliest years in Dayton, but he’s intrinsically tied to Columbus. He graduated from Ohio State in 1959 and briefly attended law school, but was drawn to retail.
In 2015, he told WOSU’s Columbus Neighborhoods that he spent months trying to convince developers of the Kingsdale Shopping Center to let him open his first The Limited store. His break finally arrived in 1963.
“And then one day Ray Suter called up and he said, ‘Swan Cleaners is moving out and there’s a location between the drug store and the supermarket. Would you like to consider that?’” Wexner recalled. “And I think I was laughing almost out loud and counted to 10 and said, ‘Well, O.K.’ Without an Upper Arlington there wouldn’t be a business today.”
The company kept adding stores and eventually went public in 1969.
Lee Peterson describes Wexner in one word: "Intense."
Peterson worked for Wexner and L Brands, then called The Limited, from 1980-1991 as a merchant buying products for stores to resell. He says Wexner constantly thought outside the box and was always pushing employees to do more and help grow the company.
“To me, from my view of his lifestyle even at that time, that’s all he cared about,” Peterson says. “We would take flights to Europe in the small Hawker jets where we’d have to stop twice on our way to Europe, and we stayed up all night long just going over sales, talking about opportunities and challenges and where we could fix this and make this better – the entire trip.”
In 2011, Wexner himself told Ohio State University business students about that work ethic.
“If I’m half as smart as my competitor and I put in twice as much time, I’ll at least match him,” Wexner says. “If he puts in 40 hours and I put in 80, it’s gonna be a tie, and if I work 90 or 100 hours I can kick his ass.”
By the 1990s, The Limited was a worldwide brand operating chains like Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lane Bryant, and Bath & Body Works. Wexner and The Limited were making billions of dollars a year while employing upwards of 100,000 people.
Since then, Wexner and the company have spun off many of their companies to focus on core assets, specifically Victoria’s Secret. But cracks started to show: Sales fell amid public backlash against what many saw as impossible beauty standards.
Company officials apologized last year for saying the company wouldn't include transgender or plus-sized models, and Victoria's Secret canceled its annual televised fashion show for the first time in almost two decades. L Brands also laid off 50 corporate office employees as part of a company restructuring.
Wexner's reputation took a public hit last year amid widespread reporting of his relationship with disgraced financier and accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Epstein was arrested in July 2019 on charges that he trafficked and abused dozens of underage girls in Florida and New York. Nearly a decade before, he had reached a plea deal on charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution, for which he registered as a sex offender.
In the 1980s, Wexner had given his then-money manager broad control over his finances and spent a lot of time with him in Columbus and New York. The two men invested in a New York mansion in 1989, which was later transferred to Epstein, and were listed as co-presidents of the New Albany Company in the late 1990s.
“Being taken advantage by someone who was so sick, so cunning, so depraved is something that I’m embarrassed that I was even close to,” Wexner said at last summer’s L Brands shareholders meeting.
Throughout it all, Wexner has maintained he knew nothing about Epstein’s alleged sex crimes.
"When Mr. Epstein was my personal money manager, he was involved in many aspects of my financial life," Wexner said in a July 2019 email to L Brands employees. "But let me assure you that I was NEVER aware of the illegal activity charged in the indictment.”
New York Times reporter Sapna Maheshwari led much of the reporting on Wexner’s affiliation with Epstein, who died by suicide in August 2019. She also worked on an investigation that showed Wexner and other Victoria’s Secret executives allowed a culture of misogyny that prompted multiple claims of harassment.
“I believe his legacy has truly been tarnished by his association with Jeffrey Epstein and revelations around treatment of women at Victoria’s Secret, where of course 90% of the associates are women,” Maheshwari says.
In response to the story, the L Brands board of directors issued an apology for failing to maintain a safe workplace, and outlined its efforts to improve anti-harassment policies and training.
“We regret any instance where we did not achieve this objective and are fully committed to continuous improvement and complete accountability,” the board’s statement read.
Peterson, though, sees a mostly positive legacy for the man he calls one of the best retail minds of his generation.
“Like I said, he’s intense and he’s gonna work for the rest of his life would be my guess,” Peterson says. “I don’t think he’s just gonna fade away in the sunset on an island, that’s for sure.”
Wexner will maintain a role as chairman emeritus with L Brands. Andrew Meslow will step up to be CEO of Bath & Body Works, which will be spun off into a separate company, and then take over as head of L Brands once the sale of Victoria’s Secret is complete.