COLUMBUS, OHIO -- When billionaire Leslie Wexner was 11 years old he figured he could make more money taking 10 children to the park at 25 cents each than by babysitting one child for a quarter. The soft-spoken 52-year-old son of an immigrant haberdasher has used a similar formula to make billions in retailing: He makes more money running many trendy specialty clothing stores than he would running a department store outfit. Wexner is chairman and chief executive officer of The Limited Inc., a $4.5 billion chain that has, over the past decade, emerged as arguably the most innovative retailer in the nation. Operating chains ranging from The Limited to Lane Bryant and Victoria's Secret, Wexner has become synonymous with the rise of specialty retailing, a trend that has sent traditional department stores reeling in the 1980s. In fact, Wexner's ability to tap trends quickly and accurately has made him one of the most copied merchants in the business. By the numbers, Wexner is clearly one of the top retail success stories of the 1980s. In the 10-year period ending Jan. 31, 1989, The Limited's earnings have climbed an average of 52 percent annually, while sales have increased 40 percent a year. The value of its shares has increased more than sixtyfold. Wexner's 52 million shares -- almost 30 percent of the company's stock -- is worth about $1.8 billion. Forbes magazine reckons he's the nation's third-wealthiest individual. The Wexner empire began in 1963 when he left law school at Ohio State without his degree and went to work at the family's clothing store. Young Les tried to convince his father, Harry, to only stock women's sportswear, the best-selling goods at the time. He refused and Wexner opened his own store, which limited its offering to women's sportswear. (Thus, ''The Limited.'') Harry and Les's mother, Bella, eventually joined their son. These days The Limited is a seven-chain retail empire of 3,200 stores, which also includes Limited Express, Lerner, Abercombie & Fitch and the trendy Henri Bendel. One of Wexner's secrets is his ability to reformulate the concept of his stores and their merchandise. His credo: ''Nothing is taken for granted. Ideas are constantly being sought out and tried. We don't schedule creativity. We don't just fuss with details -- we're continually questioning basic premises.'' Wexner, who spends half his working days on the road, roams the stores and bazaars of Europe and Asia with his Minolta, hoping to collect fashion trends and store design ideas that can be exported to his U.S. stores. For example, an earring display he spotted in Milan will become the outside frame for a Limited Express store in the United States. All new Limited Express shops, which cater to the 15- to 29-year-old age group, use baroque fixtures and French pop music to impart the sense of luxury in the store's theme, ''Compagnie Internationale Express,'' borrowing decor from chic Parisian boutiques he visited. ''Les is the greatest rip-off artist in the world,'' a former Limited employee said of Wexner's ability to cull ideas from other merchants. ''He will find a sweater in London, suggest a few minor changes for the American market, make it in an Asian {factory} and sell it at a bargain price.'' While Wexner looks to retailers overseas for some ideas, he is considered an innovator back home. A computerized inventory system keeps close track of merchandise so bestsellers can be restocked quickly. Wexner also gets a jump on his competitors by owning his own clothing importer, Andover, Mass.-based Mast Industries. Wexner is also a master empire builder. His acquisition strategy has added outlets that fill economic and style niches in the apparel market. Lerner, bought in 1985, provides goods for middle-income customers; Lane Bryant, acquired in 1982, targets women who purchase larger sizes; Henri Bendel, purchased in 1985, is a famous high-fashion specialty store, and Victoria's Secret, acquired in 1982, sells intimate apparel and accessories. Wexner may be the decade's most dynamic retailer, but his record isn't perfect. His greatest mistake, he said, was in 1985 when he launched a second hostile bid for Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc., a West Coast department store chain. Wexner, who said he ''lacks the cunning to make an unfriendly takeover,'' originally bid $30 a share, or $600 million, in 1984, believing naively that Philip Hawley, Carter Hawley Hale chairman, would recognize what great sense the combination made. General Cinema Corp. of Chestnut Hill, Mass., purchased a large stake in Carter Hawley Hale, a move that defeated Wexner's second bid. The Limited also badly missed a change in the fashion cycle during the fall of 1987 that hurt earnings until the right goods were pushed into the stores, said Bruce Missett, Oppenheimer & Co. analyst. ''Women simply didn't find the clothes they wanted from any retailer until Limited and others introduced greater variety with more new fashions,'' said Missett. Retailing, however, hasn't been Wexner's only concern. Wexner altered the focus of his life as the result of an epiphany he experienced in 1982, while strolling down Vail mountain after a snowstorm. He recalls thinking that ''making a lot of money and hoarding it was not the most creative thing'' he could do with his life. ''What is important is how you feel about yourself now.'' Since then he has decided to turn his creative energies into making Columbus, his hometown, into a world-class regional city with the cultural institutions Boston enjoys. He donated $25 million of the $43 million required to build the highly acclaimed Wexner Arts Center. Wexner also built the Wexner Research Center at Children's Hospital; gave generously to Heritage House, a Jewish retirement home; stimulated the Columbus United Way campaign to raise more individual $5,000 gifts than any other city in the United States; and funds the education of Israeli civil servants at Harvard's Kennedy School. Wexner's diary entry for Sept. 1, 1989: "I finally like myself." But he hasn't received the same reception from certain segments of Columbus as he has from his customers. He seems genuinely pained that his self-initiated generosity in Columbus often falls on resentful ears, because ''people draw back instinctively from new ideas. I like to go 90 miles an hour while they prefer 35 miles an hour,'' Wexner said. Wexner, for instance, offered to put $10 million in a new performing arts center, but the city fathers shot the plan down. Why? ''Les has not learned how to be a team player and doesn't understand why he's not appreciated by the community,'' said a source who is friendly with Wexner. ''That's why we affectionately call him 'Les the mess.' '' Wexner said he has a shot at making more money in 1990 than his venerable Ohio rival, Federated Department Stores Inc., did in its best year, with only a fraction of that chain's record sales. By 1995 Wexner wants a $10 billion giant that produces earnings of 10 percent after taxes, an even larger profit on sales than the 7.5 percent Wexner expects this year. He has a new strategy to accomplish his goal: expand the concept of cluster stores, where all The Limited divisions will be represented in a single shopping mall, such as the Columbus City Center where the seven stores account for 125,000 square feet, or 25 percent of the total. His target in Boston is Chestnut Hill's Atrium, which will eventually include the company's seven chain stores, including Henri Bendel's. ''Les,'' said Kidder Peabody analyst Barbara Kahn, ''has a vision of how to keep people happy.''