In an unremarkable office building behind a security gate in Columbus, Ohio, sits the state’s richest man. Leslie “Les” Wexner, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of L Brands, Inc., currently has a net worth of $7.1 billion, which earns him the No. 80 spot on the Forbes 400 Richest People list.
Wexner is credited with single-handedly changing the style of stores in American. The 77-year-old billionaire and philanthropist established Victoria’s Secret, Pink, Express and The Limited into one of America’s greatest retail fortunes.
He explains how his perspective on retail dates back to his youth. “When I was a kid, before my first store, they talked about stores as theater and retail as theater. It still is,” Wexner says. “Retailing is a free form of entertainment.”
Ironically, for a man with such theatrical inspiration, Wexner himself prefers to stay out of the spotlight, carefully crafting his retail empire from behind the scenes. He has owned various successful clothing and home goods stores, under his parent company L Brands.
On September 8, 1937, Wexner was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Dayton, Ohio. He learned the importance of hard work and attention to detail growing up watching his parents labor diligently, operating a small family owned store in downtown Columbus named “Leslie’s.”
He returned to help his parent run the store after graduating from Ohio State University (OSU). In 1963, Wexner opened his own store, “The Limited,” with $5,000 he borrowed from his aunt. In its first year the clothing store for young women in Kingsdale Shopping Center made $160,000 in sales, $20,000 of which was profit. This was already double what his dad store made in its best year.
The reason his store was so successful was that its stock was focused; just like the store’s name, Wexner limited his merchandise to only a few products, aimed at a specific demographic, young woman. This concept was revolutionary at the time.
In the following years, Wexner utilized both invention and acquisition to expand his business portfolio, becoming a dominate U.S. retailer with multiple powerful brands and brand extensions. L Brands, with Wexner leading, made the evolution from a specialty apparel retailer to an estimated $10 billion industry leader with over 90,000 associates focused on lingerie, personal care and beauty product categories.
In contrast to the average billionaire, Wexner does not engage the press, nor does he flaunt his wealth or broadcast his deeds to the world. He is reserved towards the media, but the opposite is true with charity. One of the industry’s most generous philanthropists, Wexner has been committed to making a difference in the community throughout his career. In 2010, in conjunction with L Brands Foundation, the Wexner family made a historic $100 million commitment to OSU to benefit their Medical Center, which was renamed the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University in his honor in February 2012, The Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, and the Wexner Center for the Arts as well as various other university initiatives.
In addition to his devotion to OSU, Wexner’s other philanthropic passions include the Wexner Institute for Pediatric Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Martin Luther King Center for the Performing Arts, both located in Columbus, Ohio; as well as the Wexner Heritage Village. Moreover he is a magnanimous supporter of the “United Way,” and was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship for his commitment to the public good.
The Wexner Fellowship, created in 1988, helped fund the education of many respected rabbis. In 2013 the fellowship paid for the graduate training of 450 “outstanding individuals” aspiring to the rabbinate, the cantorate and other Jewish leadership fields. A Wexner fellow recently in the headlines is Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who was arrested during a protest spot lighting the controversial Eric Garner case in New York.
A significant portion of the funds allocated to his eponymous foundation and fellowship are generated by his pet project, the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. As The Jewish Week summarizes it, the television show is a “Swavorski-studded shmatte fest,” aired on CBS Tuesday night, December 9, just in time for the Christmas shopping season.
The supreme, sexy show makes marketing history as one of the greatest achievements in the industry. Rather than Victoria’s Secret being required to pay for television air time, as other advertisers routinely do, CBS compensates Victoria’s Secret to the tune of more than $1 million a year for the exclusive rights to run their annual fashion show. In reality the show is essentially an hour long infomercial for the brand.