George "I guarantee it" Zimmer, the founder and public face of the retailer Men's Wearhouse, was terminated on Wednesday. The board was not specific about its reasons, saying only that they expect "to discuss with Mr. Zimmer the extent, if any, and terms of his ongoing relationship with the Company." Zimmer, meanwhile, issued his own statement, saying "the Board has inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns by terminating me as an executive officer.” The company postponed its annual meeting Wednesday amid the news.
The news is odd for several reasons. First, it's rare for a board to be so candid about a termination -- executives tend to "resign," "retire," or the P.R.-friendly "leave to spend more time with their families"--and equally uncommon for a company founder to publicly share his or her differences with the board. Second, the company was performing well of late, with sales up in the most recent quarter and shares up over the past year. Perhaps strangest of all is how buzzy the news of Zimmer's departure has been: the management changes at a men's suit retailer -- the polar opposite of hip -- were listed Wednesday as one of the hottest stories on the Web.
According to reports, one retail industry analyst speculated that Zimmer, who transitioned out of the CEO role in 2011 to become executive chairman, may have had trouble letting go of the reins, a common problem for founders. The same analyst, Richard Jaffe of Stifel Financial Corp., also told The New York Times that the company had been reviewing Zimmer's effectiveness as a spokesman in advertisements: “An old guy with a gray beard may not provide credibility to the product in the eyes of a 22- or 24-year-old.”
Maybe so. Who knows what's really behind the ouster -- there could be more we don't know. And who knows whether the retailer will keep using Zimmer in its ads. Reports say the company retains the rights to his image.
But there's little question Zimmer retains some real cult credibility on the Web -- even with, yes, 20-somethings. A post on the retailer's Facebook page was met with angry comments by customers. Many played off the company's tag line ("I will never shop at your stores again. I guarantee it!!") while younger customers weighed in, too. ("Called and cancelled our tux reservations! And FYI company executives, I'm a MILLENNIAL!").
There was something about Zimmer's direct pitch in all those ads for all those years -- as corny as it may have been, it was also familiar and in its own way, authentic. He'd passed the realm of mere spokesman; George Zimmer and his guarantees had become references in pop culture. New ads weren't going to make young customers flock to a retailer best known for selling mid-range suits. But terminating someone who's become an icon has the potential to keep them away.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.