Zimmer custom tailors sales style at Men's Wearhouse

In the late '60s, George Zimmer was just as likely to be found hanging out with the politically and socially conscious students at Washington University in St. Louis as playing flag football with his Sigma Alpha Mu frat brothers.

"I used to think of myself — though nobody else did — as a sort of liaison between the fraternity guys and the politically active people on campus," he explains with a chuckle.

It was a foreshadowing of his career, and his life.

Thirty-five years after opening his first Men's Wearhouse, mw Zimmer is still running the company, now one of North America's largest specialty retailers, with $2.1 billion in annual sales. Zimmer — a minor TV star thanks to TV commercials featuring his gravely voice and famous "I guarantee it!" tag line — also has maintained his activist engagement and unconventional outlook from college.

In fact, Men's Wearhouse's rise is in part due to selling conventional clothing unconventionally.

Since the first store opened in 1973 in Houston, Men's Wearhouse has emphasized lower pricing than competitors. The company claims that its clothes are of the same quality, and often designed and made by the same people who produce those found in tony department stores. Today the average Men's Wearhouse suits sell for $200 to $600 and each item is priced 20% to 50% lower than in department stores, the company says.

A financial crisis in the mid-1980s, when a bank called a loan his company used to finance inventories, persuaded Zimmer to refocus his business model on everyday low prices.

"Instead of playing the typical retail game of 'mark stuff up, then mark it down on sale,' we decided to lower the prices on a significant portion of our inventory and discontinue most of our promotions," he says, referring to weekly and monthly sales, not advertising.

He also hired himself as the stores' TV pitchman. "We could have hired an actor, but nobody believed it the way I believed it."

Still, Zimmer recognized that good advertising and low prices would only get men to buy a suit once. The in-store experience, he determined, would have to bring them back again and again.

Sales staff were trained to think of themselves as businessmen's clothing consultants, and to work together as teammates in assisting clients.

Zimmer also began linking some of the philosophies he had picked up in college to managing and selling. "I started talking more about what's really important," he said. "I thought that we needed to be clear about our values."

It became clear that what Men's Wearhouse values most are its employees. Happy employees who believe their work is appreciated and has meaning beyond their paychecks keep customers satisfied and loyal, which pleases investors, he says.

"The way you get high service at more than 1,000 locations is that people actually have to be inspired themselves to do that," he says.

Terry Bacon, president of Lore International Institute, a talent and leadership consulting firm in Durango, Colo., featured Men's Wearhouse in a book he co-authored called Winning Behavior. The company's business model has contributed greatly to its growth and success, he says. But "There's also no question that part of it is due to the values and the hands-on customer service they provide, and George Zimmer really drove that."

The weakness of that approach, Bacon says, is that it is "difficult to sustain. You really have to work hard to keep on replenishing the culture."

That corporate culture, which includes an emphasis on managers being involved in their communities, regularly lands Men's Wearhouse on various lists of best places to work. It also has led Zimmer to board seats with a variety of organizations, including the Oakland Zoo, near his home.

Twenty-five years ago, after seeing a picture of a large male African elephant bending down to get into its cement night house, Zimmer was disturbed to learn the photo was from his local zoo. Practicing what he preaches, Zimmer called the then-new zoo director to volunteer his time and money.

"Over the 25 years since we've redone every exhibit in that zoo and it has become a magnificent community venue," he says.

There also have been times when Zimmer's '60s-mindset has raised conventionalists' eyebrows.

For instance, Zimmer's a board member at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a group that studies paranormal phenomena and was founded by Apollo astronaut and moon walker Edgar Mitchell. Zimmer describes IONS as seeking to know what can't be known from the five senses.

"Yeah, it's got a metaphysical notion about it," he admits. But, as one who has made a career out of straddling two worlds, Zimmer adds, "I've always liked physics — and metaphysics."