The First Men’s Wearhouse — George Zimmer
The First Men’s Wearhouse — George Zimmer
George Zimmer built a brand from scratch. He opened the first Men’s Wearhouse store when he was 24. And he spent the next 41 years growing the company into a $2 billion menswear powerhouse … until his tenure came to a sudden end. Zimmer sits down with host Charles Mizrahi to tell the story of his meteoric rise and fall at Men’s Wearhouse and how he’s making a comeback.
- An Introduction to George Zimmer (00:00:00)
- The First Men’s Wearhouse (00:05:33)
- A Taste of Success (00:17:48)
- Menswear Giant (00:24:39)
- From Houston to New York (00:33:10)
- A Unique Board (00:38:28)
- Boardroom Betrayal (00:48:05)
- The Next Venture (00:54:24)
- No Regrets (01:08:08)
George Zimmer is the founder of Men’s Wearhouse, where he served as CEO and chairman for 41 years. Under his leadership, the company became the largest retailer of men’s specialty clothing in the U.S. Zimmer is also the author of I Guarantee It, which chronicles his entrepreneurial journey. And he’s currently the chairman, CEO, and founder of Generation Tux, an online rental platform for menswear.
Before You Leave:
GEORGE ZIMMER: This year, our business went up by over 100%, and we started making a lot of money. It’s hard for anybody who’s not doing what I’m doing to understand what this means. We have a business that makes 80% gross profit percentage. So, that’s quite extraordinary in the apparel business.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is George Zimmer. George is the founder of the Men’s Wearhouse clothing chain. He was CEO, board chair and television spokesman for the company for 41 years. Under George’s leadership, the Men’s Wearhouse became the largest men’s specialty chain in history, with his famous slogan: “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: His latest book, I Guarantee It: The Untold Story Behind the Founder of Men’s Wearhouse, recounts the journey of Zimmer’s rise, the fall of Men’s Wearhouse and his personal renewal. I recently sat down with George, and we talked about how he built Men’s Wearhouse from scratch and his stunning firing by his hand-picked board of directors.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: George, I want to thank you for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I’ve been looking forward to this since we spoke and you sent me your book. The name of the book is I Guarantee It: The Untold Story Behind the Founder of Men’s Wearhouse by George Zimmer. George, welcome.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Thank you, Charles. It’s a pleasure.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. That voice doesn’t change. It just keeps getting better — like fine wine.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, from your lips to God’s ears…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. I want to tell you, back in the day, when I was a kid, there weren’t that many places to shop for men’s clothing. And I was a big kid. I quickly outgrew the husky department in Alexander’s. So, my mother would go to the local mom-and-pop men’s stores — which had two suits in my size, and one happened to be green. It was a terrible experience.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, I want to get into how you started Men’s Wearhouse and built up a beautiful chain. Because you had a store that I used to go to on 46th and Madison. Beautiful. It was a nice store.
GEORGE ZIMMER: It was the No. 1 store. Out of 1,200 [locations], that was the top store.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think you had more people per square inch who needed suits than anywhere in the world.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You walked into that store, and the sense you got was: “These pants are only $70? Something’s wrong.” With the way you designed the store, you expected to go in there and spend $200 on a pair of pants. And here were [$70] pants, and you had tailors alter it for you!
GEORGE ZIMMER: And we had your size.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And you had my size. You had more than one pair of pants. That was great.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, George. Before we get into that … I read your book, and it’s fascinating how a guy like you started a business after being disrespected by a buyer at a department store. And you said: “I’m going to start a business.” And there were a whole bunch of reasons. You started with nothing … But before we discuss that, the garment business runs through your veins. Talk to me about that.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, as I’m sure you know, there has always been anti-Semitism in the United States. And up until my generation, Jewish people were relegated to either the clothing or jewelry businesses. And my family happened to be in the clothing business. My father worked for Robert Hall Clothes — which was kind of the original pipe rack discounter based in New York City.
GEORGE ZIMMER: And I guess there was some osmosis at work. When I was a young boy — single digits in age — I would run around Robert Hall stores on Saturdays with my dad, raising havoc, making no positive contribution and entertaining myself until we could go out for lunch.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What did you love about the business? The garment business is such a tough business. Although, menswear is not as tough as womenswear. The fashion doesn’t change as much. Maybe a men’s lapel would move a quarter of an inch. But in the ladies’ business, you can’t sell last year’s goods. Your inventory is dead right after the season.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, what was it about the garment business that got into your blood and had you saying: “I really like this business”?
GEORGE ZIMMER: When I started Men’s Wearhouse, I was 24. I had next to no money. So, it wasn’t that I made a scan of all the opportunities in the world and decided to open up Men’s Wearhouse. It was all I knew — and all my father knew. When I opened the first store, I relied on my father — not only for credit but the product that I put in my stores.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, at 24, you had the idea and found the storefront. Nothing fancy, right? What did you call it — pipes?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Plain pipes, yeah. Very plain: tile floor and exposed ceiling. It was really plain. And all the money I had — which was $7,000 — went to first and last month’s rent: $3,500 a month.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What year was that?
GEORGE ZIMMER: 1973.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You opened your first store in 1973?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, rent was $3,500 dollars a month. That’s a big rent.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, it was a big store. It was 6,000 square feet.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, but that’s a lot. What were you selling your suits for?
GEORGE ZIMMER: We didn’t carry suits, we just sold sport coats and slacks.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What was the average receipt?
GEORGE ZIMMER: $50.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: $50. Boy, you had a lot of faith. I don’t know. Looking back, I don’t even want to adjust it. Rent was $3,500 a month. How long was the lease?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Four months — with a five-year option.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, so, you were on the hook for $14,000.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. But still, looking back, that’s a pretty big leap. It sounds small in today’s dollars, but that’s a lot of orders. That’s a lot of goods that you’ve got to move.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Let me say this so you don’t think of me as some hero … When you’re 24, and you have the audacity to start a business, there’s got to be more to it than the opportunity to make money. That is a modern-day idea that emerged with Ronald Reagan and beyond. In 1973, the main reason I opened the Men’s Wearhouse was that I wanted to be the master of my own life. I decided I didn’t want my life to depend on the whims of other people. And I wanted to be able to sink or swim on my own merits.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That was the reason I opened the first store. And it never actually changed. It never became about money — even though the money was substantial. When you’re the top dog in a company that grows to 1,200 locations, [you do] well. But it was never about money.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was your freedom. You wanted to be your own boss. You didn’t want anyone telling you when to come in, when to leave or when to take vacations. And the funny thing at the end of the day is: You’re working 90 hours a week. People think that when you start your own business, it’s easy street. But you’re working for less than minimum wage.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s true. And that’s why I’ve often said that I don’t understand how married people can do it. Because if you’re married, you have family responsibilities, and it’s awkward to have to work the hours it takes to build a company. You don’t have to work so hard, but you don’t have to have such a successful business. There is a correlation there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You’re spot-on. I started my own money management firm when I was 22 years old. No contacts, no anything — just gumption. We rented a little 400-square-foot office for $800 a month on Eighth Avenue. And Eighth Avenue and 38th Street was not a nice place back in the day. It was pretty raunchy near the Port Authority. Back in the day, it was terrible.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I started it about a year before I got married. When you find a spouse who believes in your dream, that’s 95% of it. Because you’re right, the business takes over. It’s an entity in and of itself. You devote a lot of time and thought to it. And I figured that was the best time to start a business.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If worse came to worst, I was still living in my parent’s house. So, what’s the big difference? I still slept in the same bed, had a roof over my head and dinner on the table. Mom prepared it. So, what was the worst that could happen? My credit card would be depleted? I’d make money somewhere else!
GEORGE ZIMMER: Exactly. I never worried about things until I started in Houston. And I wrote about it in the book. First, people were waiting in line to get gasoline. I don’t think you remember…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I definitely remember — 1973, 1974 and the Arab boycott.
GEORGE ZIMMER: It was bizarre. You’d wait an hour to get five gallons of gas. And it was a strange world. And then, in Houston and the state of Texas, things collapsed. All the banks — 100% of the banks in Texas — were taken over by New York banks. Everything in Texas went south.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, the oil was terrible. This was a little later in the oil crisis. I think it was in 1978 with the Shah of Iran, and the prices went through the roof in 1979. I remember reading in The Wall Street Journal that … I was a kid reading The Journal. That should tell you something about how involved I was in business.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember [reading about] people who lived in mansions, but they couldn’t afford to heat them. So, they would huddle in a small room. They didn’t have enough electricity because they couldn’t pay for it. They had 10,000-square-foot houses that they couldn’t afford.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah. The bank I had called my loan. And they called that — I wrote about this in the book — because I had guaranteed a debt of $125,000 for my father. And my father filed for Chapter 11 in his own business. I called the guy who I had co-signed this note for and told him about it. He picked me up at Teterboro in New Jersey in a Cessna that he flew down from New Bedford, Massachusetts.
GEORGE ZIMMER: It was so funny. I went up to New Bedford with my father, and a guy named Dominic Nicolaci — who was obviously part of the mob and was the silent partner in this large apparel business. He put his arm around my shoulder, took me outside and said: “You’re doing the right thing, George.” And I remember thinking: “I must be in a movie.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember when I was in my father’s garment business for a very short span of time. It taught me to get out of the shmatta business and get into finance. I remember all the contractors in New York had some Mafia relations. The union shops, carting companies and trucking companies were all the Mafia. So, everything you were dealing with [was related to] the Mob. And the Mob was big into the apparel business.
GEORGE ZIMMER: When my dad got fired in 1960 from Robert Hall and started his own business, he told me that to bring a truck from a factory in Connecticut to his office in Manhattan with samples — there was nothing but samples — he had to work with the Mob. You could not bring any truck into Manhattan without [making] a deal with the mob. And if you thought you were going to do it and they wouldn’t notice, they would cut your tires or screw with your truck.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. I want to tell you what would happen…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was 1981, and I used a contractor in Chinatown. I didn’t truck it over there by a union truck because we were trying to save money as best we could. I rented a van and put 100 dozen piece goods in there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The next day, I got one of those guys. It wasn’t Dominic, but it was a guy who must’ve looked like Dominic. He came over and said: “We don’t do that. Next time you have to move goods, you move with me.” And they had a car parked in front of our shop for about a week. It just sat there for 10 hours a day. It intimidated the hell out of us. Needless to say, never again were goods transported by me and my van.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s right. And unless you grew up in New York, you don’t really understand what we just talked about because I don’t think any other city is that way. I’m not aware of it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No. They also did the carting business — your garbage. A guy came by and said: “You’re using us.” There was no comparison. This was the price. There was no “But…” That was it. You either pay me, or you don’t pay me.
GEORGE ZIMMER: There’s a cute story. You probably remember the garbage strike in New York City, when the garbage was stacking up in the streets. So, here’s the story. A guy comes up with a clever idea. He gift-wraps his garbage and puts it in his car — leaving it unlocked. And sure enough, it’s stolen.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, it was terrible. Back in the 1970s, it was terrible.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when you opened your store, how soon after did you know you had a hit?
GEORGE ZIMMER: I would say by the mid-1980s. When I finally came up with the economic model that we used from then on, I realized that it would work in any place in America.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In 1973, you open your first store. You’re paying $3,500 a month for rent. By the way, I totally forgot the most important thing. You’re doing your own advertising. You’re the face of the commercial.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I didn’t start that until the mid-1980s.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, that was much later. So, this picture in the book is you in the 1980s —when you’re doing your own advertising?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Where I’m in a tuxedo on the front of the book?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No. You have a picture here … In the back of the book, you have a whole bunch of nice pictures of your family.
GEORGE ZIMMER: There’s a caption for each one…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Here it is: “‘I didn’t goof around in our early commercials, like this one from the mid-1980s.’ George Zimmer present at the Men’s Wearhouse.” It must have been a nice store because you have ceiling tiles. That must have been back in the day.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah. We still had that in the mid-1980s.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, you open your store in 1973. They say the hardest store is you first. After that, it becomes a bit easier. Because your first is your biggest risk, right? You don’t know if the marketplace is going to like it, if your pricing is right or if your location is right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, all those [concerns] kind of melt away. They’re always there, and you always have to be on your game. I don’t have to tell you that. But when do you know with that first store — that first Houston store — “I think we got it. I think we have something different.” You’re not the first guy to sell men’s sport jackets and pants. So, what’s the magic there?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Here’s what happened. We opened in the summer of 1973. And in the spring of 1975, I met a man who became like my older brother. He’s [since] passed away. We met at a wedding in Chicago. He said to me: “You ought to go on TV, George.” Now, this was April of 1975. I said: “Well, I really can’t afford it.” And he said: “If you give me your entire annual budget — whatever that is — I will put it on TV for a couple of months. And after about three weeks, your business will start to take off.”
GEORGE ZIMMER: So, I thought: “That sounds reasonable.” And sure enough, he comes down to Houston, looks at our inventory in March and says: “You don’t have enough inventory to go on TV.” And I remember going: “Are you kidding me?”
GEORGE ZIMMER: And I got more inventory. It took about a month. We went on TV, and like he said, our business started going up in about three weeks. And it went that way for almost 50 years.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Isn’t it amazing what that one chance encounter with a guy in Chicago gave you? You never know where opportunity is going to find you.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Right. When I first started working with this guy, before he became successful, we met in Queens. His office was above a deli that was next to the L train. You can imagine this, and maybe some of your listeners can, too. But it was unbelievable. We’d go down and have the deli bring up lunch when we worked there. It was typical Queens in that era.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Amazing. What was the landscape like for menswear stores when you were doing this? I recall Robert Hall, but it went out of business. In New York, we had Field Brothers. Remember Field Brothers?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Sure. But the model was Loehmann’s. Do you remember Loehmann’s?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Loehmann’s was doing in womenswear what I tried to do in menswear. That was the model.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: There was the Moe Ginsburg and Fifth Avenue model, where everyone had a loft, bought goods, put them up there and had someone in the street hand out papers. That’s where you got your suits from.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah. Well, I took a store in a shopping center for $3,500 a month. It was very different than what Moe Ginsburg did upstairs.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I used to move tremendous amounts of suits. I remember people walking out with two or three suits. The prices were low. I know your prices were the same way.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah. We did a lot more units. And our volume reflected that the entire time I was there. We always did more units. In fact, at the end of my career at Men’s Wearhouse, one out of five suits in the United States were purchased at Men’s Wearhouse.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s absolutely amazing.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Right? Hey, that’s 20%. That’s not what Apple or [companies] like that have. But in the men’s business, the highest number before Men’s Wearhouse was J.C. Penney at 10%.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What was your magic? I’m not talking at the height but in the beginning stages. When you started to build momentum, everything started to click. You had history, you were a smart guy in terms of picking people to be around, you found a lot of good people to help you along the way, you were very astute and you knew the marketplace.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In the early days, what was the flywheel that made everything go? What was your model for selling sport jackets and pants? Was it the markup? The store? The low overhead? What was your secret?
GEORGE ZIMMER: This is a bit immodest, but I’m trying to answer honestly. I think it was the authenticity that I had about everything I did. Because for the first eight years, we were just a Houston-based company. I led the store manager meetings. I visited the stores every week and worked in one of those stores every Saturday. People came to know that Men’s Wearhouse was a different type of business. Yes, we were a for-profit business that celebrated capitalism. But we were more than a traditional capitalistic business.
GEORGE ZIMMER: In fact, I wrote about this in the book. We called it “stakeholder capitalism,” meaning it’s not just about maximizing shareholder value — which is what Adam Smith wrote about in The Wealth of Nations. It’s about maximizing all of the stakeholders: the employees, customers, communities and shareholders. They have to be in balance. To be honest, I don’t see much support for this idea — even after all these years.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, you have this store. The store is doing well. You open up store No. 2., and it starts to catch on. Talk to me about the early 1980s. How many stores did you have at that point?
GEORGE ZIMMER: In 1981, we jumped from Houston to the San Francisco Bay Area. As I sometimes jokingly say, that may have saved our business lives because of the collapse in taxes that I referred to earlier.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, how many stores did you have in 1981?
GEORGE ZIMMER: We had 16 — 12 in Houston and four in the Bay Area.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when did you started hitting your stride — where you were opening up a lot more stores? How many stores did you have before you went public?
GEORGE ZIMMER: We started recognizing that this was going to be a potential public company in 1986. We started opening beyond Northern California, the Gulf Coast and Houston. We started opening in Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California and Seattle, [Washington].
GEORGE ZIMMER: And we recognized that it was working equally well not just in different cities, but as we grew beyond our early television personality — that was not me, I began in 1986 — the image of the business changed. And our average store volume in Sacramento, Portland and Seattle was higher than in Houston or the Bay Area. So, we realized that not only was this going to work everywhere, but it was going to work even better.
GEORGE ZIMMER: And in 1992, we went public on the Nasdaq. It was not very exciting: $13 a share and a market cap of $100 million for 100% of the company. I think we raised $7 million for the company and $7 million for the selling shareholders. And that $100 million market cap in 1992 grew to $2 billion by 2012.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How much did you own when you first went public at $100 million? What was your stake?
GEORGE ZIMMER: I owned a third.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Did you go to sleep that night saying: “Wow, I started this.” It was crazy, right?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah. This is how I have explained that exact point. I say to people: “Did your mom tell you that money doesn’t grow on trees? That’s true — unless you’re the founder of a public company.”
GEORGE ZIMMER: Money was growing on trees. I stopped paying myself materially when we went public in 1992. So, I have not had a paycheck in close to 30 years. What I did was live off the sale of Men’s Wearhouse stock. So, by the time I was fired, I only owned 4% of the company — which was how they fired me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when you had the shares, you had 30% of the company when you went public.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, instead of taking a salary — which was due to you — you took a salary of, let’s say, $1. And anytime you needed money, you sold shares? You diluted yourself?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Correct. And I did not ever issue myself an option. My closest friends used say to me: “Why don’t you issue options?”
GEORGE ZIMMER: Part of what made Men’s Wearhouse unique was that people understood that I was trying to be an authentic human being and would not try to amass the most money for myself. I would try to amass the most money for the group. Yes, I would get the most in the group because I owned the most stock. But it was done so that everybody had appreciated value instead of just salaries and bonuses.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, as time goes on, the business is successful. The company is earning money each year. You’re doing well. Everything is going great. When do you open up on 46th Street in New York? And that’s the latest store, right?
GEORGE ZIMMER: That was our last market. Even though I’m from New York, I opened in every place in America before New York City. I think it was in the 1990s — after we went public.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember going there. We had an office there until 1996. And we had casual Fridays. I couldn’t wear a suit on Friday. My wife yelled at me. So, I went to your store and bought three pairs of pants and two or three sweaters. And that was it. That had to be 1994 or 1995 because we moved out in 1996. I didn’t know where to go, honestly. I didn’t know where to shop. I could’ve gone to Century 21, but I had to take the train, and they didn’t alter. You altered. I figured, what a great deal. And it’s within walking distance to my office.
GEORGE ZIMMER: We charged you for the alterations.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, but it didn’t matter.
GEORGE ZIMMER: We charged for alterations. One of the magical things about Men’s Wearhouse is that, from the get-go, we charged for alterations. We never gave alterations for free. I used to say to the company — not just the tailors — “When the tailors are working for free, we’ll give free alterations.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I had no problem with paying. It was just that everything was self-contained. You bought the pants, you walked over to the tailor, he did them right there and you came back three days later. It was a simple operation. So, even if I had to pay $8 or $10, I didn’t have to make another stop. I was there already.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And you had good, honest tailors. The tailor would look at [the pants] and say: “Here, let me not only take the seam in, but I’ll take in the crotch. Let me take a little here…” They made the pants, suit — or whatever it might be — look good on you. That’s a big value.
GEORGE ZIMMER: There were excellent tailors at that store. It was a huge tailor shop. We probably had eight or 10 tailors working there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That was great. I went there a couple of times. I didn’t buy that many clothes. So, I told my wife: “I got three pairs of pants and two sweaters. I’m done.” She goes: “Done?” I said: “I’m done for the next year and a half. I’m good.”
GEORGE ZIMMER: Every time I went to New York, I went to that store. And it had the highest rent in the company. We paid $1.2 million a year in rent for that location.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But it was worth every nickel, George.
GEORGE ZIMMER: When I signed that lease, I remember thinking: “We started at $3,500 a month. We’re at $1.2 million!?”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: For the people listening to this podcast, before COVID-19, when you were in New York — especially where you were at 46th and Madison — one office building had more people in it than most small towns in America. So, you had all these people buying suits. All these people were buying clothes. It was a different time. It was crowded. The streets were crowded between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I was in New York two weeks ago. I went up to Rockefeller Center and walked around to Radio City. And I thought it was starting to come back. But Omicron ended that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My son now works at 30 Rock, and there are a lot of tourists there. New Yorkers are still working at home. So, you’ve got a lot of tourists, and it looks like a lot of people. But if you go to Midtown, you’ll see so many empty stores and restaurants. It’s just sad. And Times Square — it’s really sad.
GEORGE ZIMMER: What do you think they’re going to do for New Year’s?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Look, this episode will air after New Year’s, so I hope I’m wrong in this. But it looks like, with de Blasio and the progressives in New York, they’ll probably close it down or alter it greatly. But we have to wear masks on the subway, and they’re coming back with a whole bunch of mandates. So, it’s not fun.
GEORGE ZIMMER: You still live in Brooklyn?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I still live in Brooklyn. Yes, sir. Born and bred.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, business is going well. I didn’t know that you started to dilute your shares. Now, the story changes. One thing I noticed that you started doing — maybe you’re just a pure soul or nice guy. I don’t know what it is…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: As I’m reading this book, I’m cringing because you’re putting people on the board of directors without experience in menswear — or even business. You start to put people on the board who caught your fancy at one point or you liked for a whole bunch of other reasons. Is that an accurate statement, George?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yes, it is.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, the board is serving at the pleasure of the CEO and representing shareholder interests. I don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterback because it’s so unfair. But just imagine if you’d had a board of fellow businessmen — big box retailers, manufacturers or apparel guys. They would’ve known that you were the reason that the business was what it was.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But when you hire guys who have never signed the front of a check for a business or took a $3,500 rent and had to make it go out of it, what do you expect them to do?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m sorry if I’m being tough on you, George. I don’t want to be tough on you because it hurts. I felt the pain that came between the sentences. It was sad. You built a business. You gave it everything. You put in 100 hours a week. You sacrificed so much. You cared so much about everyone in your chain — from the top guy down to the guy who tailored my pants. And you got kicked in the ass.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, the company did go Chapter 11 five years after they got rid of me. So, there is some solace. The stock went up after they got rid of me. And I actually started my new company, Generation Tux, with the increase in value of my Men’s Wearhouse stock.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Good for you!
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yes. Now, that was false hype they spun about the JoS. A. Bank acquisition — which drove the stock up. But what the hell? It still financed my newest venture, which is booming.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before we talk about that — because I want you to explain how tuxedos are doing well in this environment. I just can’t figure that out. But you’re going to share that with me. But let’s go back a second. We’re at 2010 — a little earlier than that. I think you’re not as involved with the company day to day. Is it right?
GEORGE ZIMMER: I guess that’s right. I had turned over the CEO rank to a guy who ultimately succeeded me when they got rid of me. I hired him as our tie buyer in the mid-1990s. Although he was trained at Macy’s, he was not me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Obviously. That goes without saying when the company loses its founder. So, you’re backing away from the business. You hire a guy to replace you. You have a board of directors with a bunch of guys who are your friends, right? Most of them were your friends.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I want to tell you a story about Deepak Chopra.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I was just going to bring him up! Why was he on your board?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, he was on my board because I always respected his judgment — not about business. He really wasn’t in business prior to joining my board. But let me share this story.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I’m going back 10 or 20 years, and my CFO is talking to me about a quarterly release that we’re going to make the next day. He says to me: “George, we made $0.10 a share.” And I said to him: “You mean that’s what we actually made?” He said: “Yes. Do you want to release that?” And I said yes.
GEORGE ZIMMER: The next day, we were driving in the car, and my CFO told me that he made a mistake. We only made $0.09 [a share], not $0.10. Did I want to issue a correction? I asked him to call the board of directors together that day. And when I posed that question on the call with the board of directors, Deepak Chopra — who was relatively new to the board — said: “Is that a serious question?” And I said: “Yes, Deepak. It’s a serious question.” And he said: “You must issue a correction — regardless of what Wall Street thinks about the ineptitude that that demonstrates.”
GEORGE ZIMMER: We issued a correction. There was no negative downside pull. And it was one of those moments where I thought to myself: “That’s why I put Deepak on our board.” Now, having said that, he was part of the unanimous decision to get rid of me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I got it. It’s nice, but you would have done the right thing. I can’t see you not doing that. You’re an authentic guy to begin with. It’s your face there. It’s your company. Even if you didn’t take the board vote, something tells me you would have issued the retraction. The repercussions to your reputation were just too great for missing that. So, if you want to give him credit because you’re a nice fella, let’s give him the credit.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But here’s what I’m trying to grapple with. You built this business with your idea, moxie and grit. You suffered a lot. You kept diluting your shares — and I don’t know why nobody was telling you: “Don’t do that.” And secondly, you weren’t paying yourself a salary. OK, maybe your advisers weren’t thinking.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Put that all aside. You filled the board with a lot of people who didn’t have the connections you had. You were still the business. It was still your Rolodex. We know how the business works — especially the sportswear and garment business. It’s all connections. It’s not about dealing with balance sheets. You’re dealing with people, right? You probably had suppliers for years.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, I had connections with manufacturers and in television advertising.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Without that, you don’t have a business.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s your business. So, you were the business. You stacked the board with a whole bunch of guys who were your friends, golfing buddies or whatever they might have been. And they gave you fortune cookie tidbits of wisdom. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I’m just playing along with you.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Call it the way it is.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m looking at it, and I’m reading this book. You can ask my wife. I was reading this on a Friday night, and I said: “I can’t believe this.” And she said: “What’s up? I said: “I can’t believe he’s doing this.” I knew the guys you were setting up were going to stab you in the back.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I don’t think they’re bad people. I just think they’re very easily influenced because they don’t know business. They don’t know your business.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, if you had told me that you had all the connections to the vendors and were the face of the company, I could have hired anybody to replace any other position but those two. Your sourcing was tremendous.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Let me tell you. You’re not going to like this answer. But it’s an honest [one]. I went out of my way to assemble that board of directors — not because I was friends [with them] but because they agreed with me about stakeholder versus shareholder capitalism.
GEORGE ZIMMER: The mistake I made was that they didn’t really agree with me. They were kissing my butt so I would think that they agreed. Because obviously, when push came to shove, they chose shareholder capitalism, not stakeholder capitalism.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, let me speed up this story because I could speak to you for hours. But I want to get to the sad part. It’s beautiful.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I’m not sad!
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, but you have a beautiful smile, and you’re so happy sitting there. I’m looking at the book, and you look like the same guy here. The only difference is that you’re not wearing a tuxedo.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Here’s where I’m at. You had this board, and as time went on — and by the way, you totally misread them. You walked into a lion’s den. That showed how clueless you were as to the way they would act or react to what you had.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, at the end of the day, it all came down to money. And it seems that they were sold a bill of goods when doing this deal with JoS. A. Bank — which made no sense. I remember that when they did it, I said: “When did it ever make sense to take on so much debt and take a company that has the same customers?” I looked at JoS. A. Bank. There was one in Jersey in the Monmouth Mall. I walked in there, and three suits [went for] some ridiculous number — $200 or $300…
GEORGE ZIMMER: Ha, yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I said: “Men’s Wearhouse is going to cannibalize itself.” And you were taking on debt. So, I just didn’t get that deal.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That may have been part of the reason that they got rid of me. They knew I was very familiar with Joe Bank. And not only would I have not bought [JoS. A. Bank] for $1.8 billion, but I wouldn’t have bought it for $1. We had about an 80% overlap in customers.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was 80%?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah, and it was documented on film. And my successor knew that. I guess that’s called an unconscious bias — they wanted to do something and forgot about the information.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He shot the arrow and then painted the bull’s eye. I’m getting this acquisition regardless of what it costs or how stupid it becomes.
GEORGE ZIMMER: But the lawsuit fizzled. They never got sued.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Hmm. OK, so you [had a] showdown. You walked into a hotel, right? I remember you described the room in the book.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah, I got fired in a hotel.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember the scene. I was saying: “Ugh, this is where the guy has to meet his end? What a place.”
GEORGE ZIMMER: It was a nice place.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You go around, and they all vote you out. They say thanks and give you a small window of time — a few hours — to decide. Tell me about that again.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, actually, what happened was that I walked in on Monday at 5 p.m. And we had a public company shareholder meeting on Wednesday morning. So, this was sort of a prep meeting for the board before we did that. They told me that they wanted me to step down as chairman of the board.
GEORGE ZIMMER: At the time, they didn’t say that I was done with the company. They just said that they wanted me to step down as chairman of the board. And they wanted to send out new proxy statements — even though it was a fait accompli. They wanted to have a new shareholder meeting where I was no longer the chairman.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Was that legal?
GEORGE ZIMMER: It was legal. They gave me a few hours to resign. And at 10 p.m. that night, I called the lawyer for the board — who was a good friend of mine — and said: “Mike, I’m not resigning.” He passed the message along.
GEORGE ZIMMER: And the next morning, at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., the lead director, who was 6’7, stood up at the table — so he really towered over everybody, and I think he understood the raison d’être for doing that — and said to me: “George, by unanimous consent, the board of directors has decided to not only terminate you as chairman of the board but terminate you from all ongoing involvement with the company.”
GEORGE ZIMMER: This was the thing. I wrote about it in the book, and I’m probably the only one who remembers this. He then said: “We’ve put your furniture and knick-knacks in storage.” And I remember thinking: “You did that already? Well, then you must have been planning this.” And I’d only been there from day one.
GEORGE ZIMMER: So, when you thought about the knick-knacks that I had acquired, it was startling. And I had a devoted assistant who started working for me when she was 16 years old and was then in her 50s. She was able to get the 50 cartons of stuff that they’d put in storage and bring it to my home when I finally settled down.
GEORGE ZIMMER: But this story has a happy ending, Charles. My new company — which was funded by the growth in Men’s Warehouse stock — is booming. And I know you wanted to ask why it was [thriving during] COVID-19?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Tell us what the businesses is. I didn’t let you do that.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, it’s a suit and tuxedo rental [business] for weddings. And after a very difficult 2020, our business went up by over 100% in 2021. We started making a lot of money.
GEORGE ZIMMER: It’s hard for anybody who’s not doing what I’m doing to understand what this means, but we have a business that makes 80% gross profits. That’s quite extraordinary in the apparel business, and it makes the company very lucrative. Although I’m not sure that I want to take it public — having had the experience I had — I do think it’s quite valuable.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, if you do take it public, ask one your enemies: “Who would you want on the board?” Don’t use anyone that they mention.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, I’ll probably ask you, Charles.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m in. So, let me ask you this. Is this business an online business or physical-presence [business]?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Online only.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’re using your contacts of 50- or 60-plus years. I assume that. I don’t know who your suppliers are.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s correct.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, you’re using people who still know George Zimmer as George Zimmer. There’s no question. That’s what people don’t get, especially the people who fired you. Because they never had it — that’s the thing. They never had it because it’s you. They don’t get that you were the business. It wasn’t Men’s Wearhouse. It was George Zimmer Inc. You were the business. And once you left the business, there was no more Men’s Wearhouse.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s a lot of hubris when people think it’s only them that built something, when it’s the founder who built it. You have a little black book of contacts from over 50 years. If you called me up in the middle of the night, right after you left, and said: “Charles, I’m looking for investors. I’m investing in…” I’d say: “Stop right there, George. Where do I send my check?” You have the contacts and experience. You have paid for all the mistakes in your first business. You’ve got to do well. It’s a no-brainer.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah, I spoke to David Rubenstein, who offered me $3 billion to buy my company back. And here’s what I told him: I said, “Mr. Rubenstein, that is very generous of you to make that offer. But at my age, I don’t want to borrow $3 billion to buy back a company I started for $7,000.” He said: “I understand.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s great. You don’t want to work for another guy. It’s basically working for him. So, tell me this business model. I’m not grasping it. You’re online, and you buy suits and tuxedos, right?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Oh, it’s unbelievable.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Tell me. I want to hear it.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I developed this at Men’s Wearhouse in the 1990s. And today, it’s probably the main part of what Men’s Wearhouse does. So, it’s actually a real competitor because it’s much larger.
GEORGE ZIMMER: We buy a product, and then we rent it between 20 and 30 times. So, when you look at the cost of sales, the No. 1 cost of sale is freight. No. 2 is cleaning — we clean every garment, including the shoes. And No. 3 is the cost of the product. When you rent it 20 or 30 times, the cost of the product is somewhat de minimis. So, the result is that we have generated a business that is on its way to doing $100 million and earning EBITDA of $50 million. Have you ever heard of a business like that?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think Apple. But in apparel, that’s unheard of. What’s the magic? We used to have so many [similar businesses]. I remember that, in Brooklyn, it used to be Zeller Tuxedos — with the same business model.
GEORGE ZIMMER: The magic is that we make the tuxedo. First of all, when you’re in an online rental business, you establish a base inventory. And then, you augment it very incrementally as you go season to season or year to year.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I’m going to be recruiting and hiring my kid brother to work part-time for us. Because he used to love — only I remember this — looking at computer printouts of size and on-hand sales at Men’s Wearhouse. There were 50 sizes. It was something that he became quite adept at. And I think he’s going to be very excited about doing this for us.
GEORGE ZIMMER: And it’s not just suits and tuxedos. We do shirts, vests, shoes, neckwear et cetera. So, this has turned into a Nevada gold or silver mine — only in the apparel business.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Beautiful. So, you have cost for acquisition of each customer because you’re sending it upfront on the internet, right?
GEORGE ZIMMER: It’s all social media, 100%.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, you’re not spending anything on Google networks?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yeah, I’m sorry, [add] Google.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’re advertising through digital marketing. You’re bringing it to the site. What is the cost of a tuxedo rental? Give me an average unit cost. If I wanted to rent a tuxedo, what’s it costing me?
GEORGE ZIMMER: We’re getting into details here. It’s about $125.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. Now, here’s my question. I have four boys from ages 21 to 31, and they don’t wear suits. In fact, it’s funny because we’re going to a family wedding soon. And my son said: “I have to buy a suit.” I swear to you. It was the other day. And I said: “I don’t even know where to get a suit from.” All the stores are closed down. We used to go to Century 21. Where do you get suits from?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But it’s one suit. If he’s going to buy a suit for $300, he could rent it for $125 from you instead. Get the suit rented, and you do alterations. How does that work with the alterations? How do you do it online?
GEORGE ZIMMER: We’ve come up with a proprietary way in which you can do all of it online in about one minute.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: To me, that is the magic sauce. Because if you make mistakes in the alterations, it’s going to cost you a fortune back and forth.
GEORGE ZIMMER: When we started Generation Tux, we actually sent tape measures to our customers and said that they needed to measure certain things. And of course, we found out that people do not know how to measure with consistency. So, we had to come up with another way. And now, we have a proprietary way that we think is quite impressive.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’re saying that if I order a tuxedo or suit online, the turnaround for me … Say the wedding’s on Sunday, and I get it Thursday. Do you pay for alterations for me if I need them done? I just got the suit from you. What am I going to do?
GEORGE ZIMMER: You’re not allowed to take it out for your own alterations. We have tailors in Louisville — where this is all headquartered — and they do the alterations. You’re not allowed to do your own, nor is it recommended.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What is the turnaround if I have to go to the wedding?
GEORGE ZIMMER: We send it to you in a box two weeks before the event. And then, after the event, you send it back in the same box. We pay freight both ways.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How long after the event do I have to send it back to you?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Within three days.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’re taking a suit out of inventory for 17 days and turning it 20 to 30 times?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Correct.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you’ve got to be making money. It’s an enormous turn.
GEORGE ZIMMER: You understand, Charles, that you and I are the only two people on this call who understand what we’re talking about?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I don’t know, we might have a couple other Garment Center people from back in the day. But if that’s it, wow. You’ve got another gold mine. That’s great. Generation Tux?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, beautiful.
GEORGE ZIMMER: One word. No capitals.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, generationtux.com. So, to anyone listening … If you need a suit, tie or whole ensemble — and you don’t want to spend money or go to Men’s Wearhouse anymore because you love George Zimmer — order it on generationtux.com. And the fit has got to be perfect, right? So, during those two weeks, I could send it back to you and say that the pants were hemmed wrong or something?
GEORGE ZIMMER: Correct. That’s why we send it two weeks early — so that you have the opportunity, if it’s required.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, cleaning bills are probably your biggest [cost]. Well, shipping right? Shipping and cleaning would probably be your two biggest costs.
GEORGE ZIMMER: That’s what I said.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I’m not going to start, George. You can totally trust that I will not get into this business. I left the garment business years ago, and I could sleep better at night.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Well, you know, nobody has the contacts that I have to get the product. And quite frankly, from what I’ve been told, our customers love our products. And there’s not a lot of repeat business. Unless someone gets divorced, there’s no repeat customer here. So, it is about word of mouth.
GEORGE ZIMMER: And I’ve always been the type of guy who is not in a hurry. I figure I’m going to be doing this until I drop. It took me a number of years to get this to work well. And now, it’s even better than Men’s Wearhouse. As I like to say, “It’s nice to be in the suit and tuxedo rental business without being encumbered by 1,200 men’s stores.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You have no rent. You have a distribution center. So, the internet is your rent. Beautiful. And give me that “I guarantee it,” George. I’ve got to hear that from you.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I’ll make more money on Generation Tux than I made on Men’s Wearhouse, I guarantee it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I love it. You’ve got to come back here when it goes public.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I have one last thing for you that I was thinking while I was reading the book. And thank you so much for your time. I usually go a little shorter, but I could speak to you for hours.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: By the way, if you’re ever in New York, call me. Dinner is on me. I’d love to sit and talk to you for hours. You wouldn’t have to talk. You could eat. You could just listen to me if you want. I’ll make sure it’ll be worth your while.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I was just there two weeks ago.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I was just going to say, the next time … Now with all the mandates, I don’t know what’s going on with that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But if you look back … And I want you to think about this for a second. If you look back on everything — from the day you opened that first store in Houston to right before you started Generation Tux — and had to do one thing [differently] … I know you’re not that type of guy because I’ve seen your demeanor and outlook on life. You look forward, not back.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But if you could have done one thing that would have made a big difference — and forget about where you would have ended up — what would it have been? What is one thing that you would have done differently?
GEORGE ZIMMER: There’s not much that I wish I had done differently in my life. And I don’t mean that to be as arrogant as it may sound. But here’s something that I would do differently: When my grandmother died in the late 1980s, I was doing Men’s Wearhouse Christmas parties and didn’t go to her funeral. And I wish I had gone to her funeral. That was a mistake.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It still bothers you, huh?
GEORGE ZIMMER: It doesn’t bother me, but you asked me what I would do differently.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And that’s it. In terms of the business, you wouldn’t have done anything differently with that?
GEORGE ZIMMER: I hired my friends, and they stabbed me in the back. So, I don’t know that your comment on my board is accurate.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But if I had the board sitting here instead of you and asked: “Give me the lowdown on the Zimmer guy. Tell me what the other side of the story is.” What could they possibly say? You wanted the JoS. A. Bank? It doesn’t make any sense.
GEORGE ZIMMER: I was gone before then. What they would say is: “George was a very arrogant man and very difficult to work with.” That’s what they would say.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: George built 1,200 stores from scratch.
GEORGE ZIMMER: You can be the president of my fan club, Charles, but they were not.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They weren’t fans. They were part of the “How Do We Hang George Publicly” [club].
GEORGE ZIMMER: I mean, it happens.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, I could learn from you in having the optimistic, let-bygones-be-bygones and move-forward attitude. I still remember the kid who stole my eraser in second grade and never gave it back to me. So, I have a lot of baggage.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Charles, I remember all that. I just don’t like to talk about it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, that’s best for you. But this sounds exciting. And George, I don’t have to wish you the best of luck. You’re going to do amazingly well because you’re the business. It’s your reputation. It’s George Zimmer.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How did it make you feel when the Carlyle Group says we’ll give you $3 billion? Forget about not taking it. That must have made you feel amazing, huh? That’s one and a half times the market cap of Men’s Wearhouse at its best. He was willing to throw that at you.
GEORGE ZIMMER: David said to me: “What is it going to take to buy your company back?” The company was never worth $3 billion. It was worth $2 billion. But I said $3 billion because that’s what it would take to buy it back. And he said OK.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s a blessing. You had COVID-19 — which would have been really tough for the men’s wear business. And you came up with a new business model that you could scale without much money. Who you are is going to take it to the next level. That’s great.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, the name of the book is I Guarantee It: The Untold Story Behind the Founder of Men’s Wearhouse. And now, it’s not so much of an untold story because George laid it all out for you there — warts and all. You hear his shortcomings, and the fact is that he just keeps moving on.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Go to my website. I read chapter five — “I Guarantee It” — on my website.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, nice. I’m going to go to the website. We have a wedding coming up. I’d love to try it. I’d love to see it.
GEORGE ZIMMER: It’s called George Zimmer book.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: George Zimmer book. OK, great. George, thank you so much. I greatly appreciate all the success. God should continue to bless you with a long and healthy life, and keep doing great things.
GEORGE ZIMMER: Thank you very much, Charles.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, George. Thanks so much.
GEORGE ZIMMER: OK, so long.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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