One of the kings of American retailing said yesterday that the United States is being too timid in its effort to compete in the world economy.
In all the debate about competitiveness, "I don't hear any talk about winning," said Leslie H. Wexner, chairman of The Limited Inc., who was in Washington to talk to federal officials. "That bothers me. We should play to win, not play to tie."
Adding his voice for the first time to the debate over the United States' ability to compete internationally, Wexner told government officials it was not sufficient to make American industries merely competitive with their foreign rivals.
"We're not embarrassed to say we are the world's dominant military power in the world. Why should we be embarrassed to be the dominant economic power in the world?" said Wexner, who heads the world's largest retailer of women's apparel.
His opinions, he said, were based on his experiences in conducting business internationally for the past two decades because his chain has bought large quantities of apparel from the Far East. Today, Wexner said, about half of The Limited's apparel is made abroad.
Wexner said he opposed government efforts to impose import quotas to protect American industries, citing legislation being sought by the textile industry that would tighten quotas on textile imports.
"I think it's counterproductive and very foolish and will mean higher prices and lower quality for American consumers. The industry doesn't need any protection. It needs to get tougher and more competitive. It is damn near capacity and probably never been in better health in several decades. My advice to them is they should become more and more aggressive about selling."
Wexner, 50, is regarded as one of America's preeminent merchants, having created a $4 billion, 3,000-store chain from a single store launched with $5,000 in borrowed money in 1963. His company owns and operates The Limited, Limited Express, Lane Bryant, Victoria's Secret, Lerner's, Henri Bendel and Sizes Unlimited stores.
Up to now, he has spent his time building his stores and merchandise -- not speaking out on public policy issues. But yesterday, in meetings with a host of government officials -- including Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, U.S. Trade Representative Clayton K. Yeutter, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole and a half dozen other senators, and a group of House legislative assistants -- Wexner spoke out "to stimulate some thinking and debate." He also met with The Washington Post editorial staff.
"I believe -- and many of my experiences as a businessman traveling internationally for 20 years have shown -- that our trading partners do not trade with us fairly," he said. "Many of them actually laugh at our trading policies and cannot believe we're as dumb as we are. They would like to beat our brains in economically. They are not trying to be competitive. They are trying to win."
To make American companies win, Wexner had few precise solutions other than getting the government more involved in providing leadership support to businesses.
Among other things, Wexner suggested that the government sponsor trade fairs similar to the one The Limited held last summer. At that time, realizing that the company's rapid growth demanded more manufacturing sources, The Limited invited U.S. apparel makers to its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, in an effort to expand the company's domestic sources.
More than 850 companies participated in the two-day fair, and more than $40 million of orders were written up for 113 companies with which the Limited had never before done business.
Although the dollar amount represents only 1 percent of all Limited sales, Wexner declined to described that total as "peanuts ... It may be a small amount but it is a significant amount, if only a beginning."
Nonetheless, Wexner said he was amazed that the Limited had to hold a trade fair to find new U.S. suppliers. "It's astonishing that a customer would have to have a trade fair for an industry. It's backwards. It doesn't happen in other countries.