Doug Ewert: The rock

Men’s Wearhouse CEO Doug Ewert feels the responsibility of 17,000 employees.

Doug Ewert“Business is good,” asserts Men’s Wearhouse CEO Doug Ewert. “Of course I can’t talk about the current quarter, but we’re opening stores, we’re running positive comps and we’re aggressively moving forward on several new concepts.”

Asked for specifics, Ewert is thoughtful. “Our marketing and merchandising teams have done a great job of communicating the relevance of modern dressing. We’ve had a tremendous response to slim fit, which is 25 percent of the clothing business now and growing fast. Casual is also doing well: from virtually no denim three years ago, it’s now a very large business for us. For one of our premium brands, we are their largest retailer in America. And by selling a lot of casual wear, we’re effectively penetrating deeper into our customers’ closets. In addition, we’re broadening our demographic by selling younger customers. We’re not labeled ‘your dad’s suit store:’ our tuxedo rental business has made us totally relevant with millenials. By coming in the store to rent a tuxedo for a prom or wedding, this customer is exposed to our brand at a young age and they come back to us when they need clothes.

“But really our core competency is delivering world-class service in a thousand stores throughout North America. It harkens back to the heritage of what men’s specialty store retailing is all about, which is much more than just product and price. And I think we do a pretty good job of delivering an exceptional customer experience.”

As spokesperson for the store when it comes to Wall Street, Ewert is polished and professional, speaking always with “a lawyer’s filter.” Still, he can’t help but express his frustration at the continuously promotional nature of the men’s clothing business, a situation that’s deteriorated since the recession and that’s exacerbated by aggressive “giveaways” by Men’s Wearhouse’s primary competitor, Jos. A. Bank. “We’re anxious to get back to the day when we don’t have to focus all our marketing energy on price promotions, when we can get back to talking about quality and service. The truth is that I can’t think of another category in apparel, or maybe in retailing overall, where the competitive environment is so aggressive. I can’t think of another category that does the kind of crazy promotions that Jos. A. Bank does with their Buy-One-Get-Several-Free… It’s frustrating and it’s unfortunate but I guess the old adage is true: you can fool some of the people all of the time! How do we combat that? We stick to our business of taking care of our customers by offering great product at good value. In other words, we continue to do what we think is right for our business. We’re essentially disregarding them because we won’t let ourselves sink to their level; we don’t want to play those ridiculous markup games…” That said, Ewert maintains that their primary competitors are the department stores who play price games too, but not to the extreme level that Jos. A. Bank does. “They [the department stores] have a more credible pricing strategy and take more reasonable markups. In any case, our mission is to continue to open new stores; we’re adding more than 100 in the States and another 10 or so in Canada.”

Doug's wife Julie; younger son Brandon (left); older son Ryan (right); and family dog Riley

Doug’s wife Julie; younger son Brandon (left); older son Ryan (right); and family dog Riley

Ewert maintains that this aggressive growth strategy is based largely on the power of tuxedo rentals, allowing Men’s Wearhouse to successfully enter smaller markets. “A strong tuxedo rental business changes the whole economic profile of the store. Before tuxedo rentals, we thought we’d ultimately have 500 Men’s Wearhouse stores; that number is already more like 750, with 850 projected over the next few years…”

As for outlets, from four at the moment (just opened in November 2012), there will be at least 100 of them, featuring mostly product made specifically for the outlets. “There’s a little downflow from our Men’s Wearhouse stores, but that’s not the cornerstone of the concept. Obviously, we’re targeting a more moderate customer here: whereas Men’s Wearhouse sells suits from $250 to $400 OTD, the outlet concept features suits under $200, which is of course a huge opportunity. There are more suits in this country sold under $200 than over $200. We’re going after retailers like JCP, Kohl’s and Sears, and they sell a lot of suits! We’ll feature different product than what’s in Men’s Wearhouse: a lot more separates and a lot of blended fabrics, similar to what’s in the mid-tier stores, but under the halo of the Men’s Wearhouse brand, with service and alterations (rarely available at mid-tier). We think we have a really compelling alternative for mainstream men.”

Asked about the ratio of branded to unbranded product in the outlets, Ewert confides they have yet to figure it out. “We’re still experimenting with merchandising and pricing strategies,” he explains. “For sure both national brands and store brands will be important, but we have not yet landed on the perfect mix.”

What they have landed on, according to Ewert, is the perfect Men’s Wearhouse spokesperson in (surprise, surprise) George Zimmer. “Target has their red bullseye; we have George Zimmer and his distinctive voice. When you hear that voice, even if you’re across the room and not looking at the TV screen, you know it’s a Men’s Wearhouse commercial. And that’s a powerful advantage! George has been on TV for many decades now, and we’re fortunate that we can continue to leverage his recognition and credibility to help elevate our brand. I’m hoping to keep it up for as long as he’s willing, and as long as it makes sense for the business.”

Ewert explains that because they have stores in all 50 States and across all provinces in Canada, broadcast is still the most effective way to communicate. “But we’re moving quickly to become a true multi-channel retailer,” he insists. “We have an extensive database of customers from our loyalty program, and we market to them via e-mail, text message and social media. Plus our website gets 1.5 million unique visitors a month, so our marketing strategy is pretty extensive. In addition, we attend more than 700 bridal fairs a year and have partnerships with David’s Bridal (to connect with the bride early in the shopping process) and The Knot, which is the biggest wedding planning tool on the web.”

Asked about mentors, Ewert singles out both George Zimmer and his dad, Hank Ewert, who died in February at the young age of 72. “Like any true entrepreneur, George is a unique breed, a definite ‘character,’ but also an incredible role model. He’s always thinking out of the box, always challenging the status quo, always creating a dialog, looking for opportunities. It’s an absolute thrill to work closely with him; there’s so much to be learned…”

Asked to specify, Ewert doesn’t hesitate. “George taught me early on that the only way for us to be successful as a retailer is to have engaged, enthusiastic employees. Which has become our mantra: that a successful business starts with the employees. To this day, every time we consider making a change to our business, the first thing we do is put ourselves in the shoes of our employees, from our tailors to our wardrobe consultants to our truck drivers. How will the change affect them? Will it be seen as a positive or negative? Will it make their jobs easier or more difficult? Always, George has a laser focus on our customer-facing employees: everything we do is reflected through the lens of our frontline associates; that’s where we’re going to make or break our business every day. George has ingrained this focus on every single person in this organization, and that’s the single biggest reason why we’ve been successful for 40 years.”

Asked about the comfort level of working just a few feet away from the visionary who started it all, Ewert is surprisingly honest. “We disagree sometimes,” he admits. “But I think that’s healthy. And sometimes I turn him around on it and sometimes visa versa. But believe it or not, we are completely aligned on the big decisions, and on the strategic direction of the company. It’s a gift for me to have him still enthusiastically involved in the business. He has not retired at all, but by me becoming CEO, he can now spend more time visiting stores, interacting with our customer-facing employees, thinking about strategy and working on our marketing efforts. It’s a great partnership and I’m lucky to work with him.”

Discussing his dad, Ewert has trouble masking the sadness of his recent loss. “Hank Ewert ran a manufacturing plant for IBM; he was your classic ‘button-down IBMer’ with an incredible work ethic and an even more incredible sense of integrity. He taught me how to be a smart businessman, but more importantly, how to be a good man. Whatever success I’ve had in my career, I attribute to lessons I learned from my dad…”

That said, Ewert is most proud of his own kids: two wonderful sons in high school (Ryan, 18 and Brandon, 15, “and we’ve lived to tell about it…”) and his terrific older daughter Ashley. “My wife Julie and I are truly blessed on the type of men our boys have developed into. The problem is that they both have some of that Ewert curse: the burden and the gift of responsibility. They both have a very strong and ingrained deep sense of responsibility, which is surely the core attribute I learned from my dad that I somehow passed along. It’s good and it’s bad: at some point, you’ve got to learn to give yourself a break.”

But with 17,000 Men’s Wearhouse employees, breaks are few and far between. “George always said that with so many employees, you carry around a rock, which is essentially the weight of the responsibility of caring for them. I never really knew what he meant until I became CEO; now I totally get it.”

What would he change about the business if he could? “That’s easy: I would go back to the days of everyday value pricing, which we had until the recession in 2008. We put a fair price on our product and our customers responded. We had maybe one or two sales a year. Then the recession hit and all of a sudden, the customer wasn’t responding to anything less than 50 percent off. I don’t like operating a business like that, which is why I’m one of Ron Johnson’s biggest fans. [Editor’s note: he’s also a big fan of Target and J. Crew.] I was recently in a JCP prototype store in Dallas and I have to tell you, it was probably the most interesting department store I’ve ever seen. He’s done a fabulous job in his attempt to wean the customer off price promotions and I’m cheering for him. If he can do it, then surely there’s hope for the rest of us.”

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