Why Men’s Wearhouse fired George Zimmer


Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer, second from left, in a 1999 file photo, was terminated June 19. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

The Men's Wearhouse board is clearing the air.

After company founder George Zimmer was fired last week as executive chairman — with no explanation by the company — fans furiously took to the brand's Facebook page to lament the departure of Zimmer, whose TV pitches have entered the realm of pop culture iconography. His departure prompted an unusual swirl of buzz and mystery around the otherwise staid brand.

On Tuesday morning — after Zimmer had issued his own statement saying the board had "inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns" and that he had then resigned from the board altogether — directors took the atypical step of providing a relatively candid explanation of its reasons. The board's statement reports that Zimmer's dismissal was, as has been previously reported, partially related to Zimmer's reported unwillingness to hand over the reins.

"Mr. Zimmer had difficulty accepting the fact that Men's Wearhouse is a public company with an independent board of directors and that he has not been the chief executive officer for two years," the board said in a statement. "He advocated for significant changes that would enable him to regain control, but ultimately he was unable to convince any of the board members or senior executives that his positions were in the best interests of employees, shareholders and the company's future."

It then goes on to lay out its "issues of contention," which included that Zimmer, who founded the company in 1973, would not support the CEO and management team he selected "unless they acquiesced to his demands." It said he "expected veto power over significant corporate decisions," including executive compensation, and reversed course on strategic decisions about one of the company's brands and about taking the company private.

"Neither the board nor management desired a total breakdown of the relationship between Mr. Zimmer and the company," the statement reads. However, the board wrote, "Mr. Zimmer wouldn't accept anything other than full control ... and the board was left with no choice but to terminate him as executive chairman."

If true, the claims would mirror those frequently made against founders. (In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Zimmer declined to comment on the board's statement.) Four out of five founders, according to research by Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman, are resistant to stepping down from the CEO role, and the same ratio of entrepreneurs must be forced to step down from the chief executive's post. And Wasserman's study was of start-ups — one has to imagine that for some people, it's even harder after four decades at the helm.

We see many founders — from Nike's Phil Knight to Best Buy's Richard Schulze — continue to play active roles with their companies after becoming executive chairmen. Some act out of a mission-like zeal to improve the futures of their companies — these are their babies, after all, and taking away the reins can be like asking a parent not to give advice to a child. In other cases, personalities and egos can get in the way of what's actually best for shareholders and employees. Whichever turns out to be the case for Zimmer and Men's Wearhouse, one thing's for sure: The less drama there is from either side, the sooner the company can move forward. I guarantee it.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · June 24, 2013