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Men's Wearhouse Tailored for Any Change That Retail Brings

Optimas - 2001: Employees come first at a company with a decidedly different sales point of view.

February 28, 2001
Few industries have seen more change in recent years than men's clothing. As men spent less and less on tailored wear in the last decade, a laundry list of stores experienced financial difficulty - and even bankruptcy. The human resources team at The Men's Wearhouse took a completely different tack. They instituted unusual and groundbreaking workforce-management strategies that worked.

    "We know that the only constant is change," says Eric Anderson, Men's Wearhouse's director of training. "We have said for a long time that we are in the people business, not the men's clothing business. We happen to sell men's clothing, but by recognizing what is really important - the people - we have a different paradigm than many other businesses. In order of priority, our employees, our customers, our vendors, our communities in which we do business, and our stockholders are our key stakeholders. The business results flow from taking care of these key stakeholders."

    Anderson says his challenge has been to create an environment where employees want to bring the best of themselves to work so that the business achieves positive results. "How do you nurture creativity, empowerment, responsibility, trust, and excitement?" he asks. "We try to recognize and nurture the potential in people. Because we are in the people business, training permeates our company culture."

    The company has some unusual practices, including CEO George Zimmer's attempt to see each employee in person once a year, and the unorthodox practice of flying store managers to California with unheard-of regularity. All of this stems from Zimmer's unconventional business philosophy.

    "When you treat people as they should be treated, oddly enough, they're more productive," explains Charles Bresler, executive vice president, who oversees store operations, human resources, and marketing. Bresler believes that he gets incrementally more value out of well-treated employees than some of his competitors do.

    "They treat customers better partly because they're trained on customer service, but partly because they're just feeling better themselves and they don't feel put down by the corporation. That energy translated to customer service sells more products and [results in] more repeat business. That's how you build a retail business, from our point of view."

    Bresler says that many of his company's competitors see retail employees as interchangeable. "People are just to ring up sales," he says. "They direct people to where the merchandise is." By bucking this trend, Men's Wearhouse was not only able to retain employees throughout the labor shortage but also to convince sales staff to move the new business casual line despite its lower cost and, therefore, lower commissions.

    The main reason for the company's adaptability and success is its extensive training program. Men's Wearhouse employees receive, on average, 40 hours of training a year. Once into their careers, store managers, wardrobe consultants, and higher-ranked employees are taken to the company's Fremont, California, facility for Suits University, a five-day training program where they not only learn the ins and outs of company policy and men's fashion, but also are integrated into a cohesive team.

    Flying each of their store managers to California might seem extravagant by retail-training standards, but for Men's Wearhouse, it's only the beginning of their training commitment.

    A manager's training begins at Suits University, which reinforces the company's commitment to the individual and sharpens employees' skills. The training then continues at the beginning of each year, when all of the store and senior office managers go to California to renew their bond with each other and to collectively ascertain where the company is headed.

    Following that, every store manager and assistant manager goes to California for a two-day session of behavior training and information dissemination. During the summer, the corporation conducts six regional training sessions for all store employees except cashiers. These sessions focus more on selling and consulting.

    "There's an HR presentation in which we talk about our corporate culture," Bresler says. "There's usually something philosophical by either George or myself. There's a merchandise presentation, and there's a party and sports events and bonding that occurs. That's just as important as the training."

    It's difficult to say exactly how many trainers there are in the company, because almost everyone trains. Operational executives, merchants, and some HR executives and directors double as front-line trainers at corporate events. At the store level, regional managers, district managers, and field operations trainers provide ongoing in-market and in-store training. Store managers also are responsible for training and developing their staffs.

    At the local level, regional managers oversee Suits High, a regional training session similar to Suits University that focuses on 6 to 10 stores at a time. There is a Sales Associate University for cashiers. Changing times have kept the training teams busy. In-store training on the company's new computer system, for example, has allowed wardrobe consultants to alert regular customers to new items that might be of interest.

    "We view people in retail as having the potential to be consultants rather than clerks," Bresler says. And a consultant - like a doctor or lawyer or auto mechanic - gets to know their customer and what they need beyond just what they say they need.

    If somebody comes into a doctor and asks to have their ear checked, a good family doctor will also check their blood pressure and will get a family history...get to know them as a person. They expand on their initial request and suggest other things the person needs besides having their ears checked. Through the establishment of a trusting relationship, we do that in retail."

    Bresler feels that they train people to be consultants - not just salespeople - and encourages them to build long-term relationships with their customers.

    The results have been significant. Both Bresler and Anderson believe that their well-trained staff could sell anything - a skill that helped when the casual line was introduced. Despite the changing market, Men's Wearhouse has maintained its position as the market leader in tailored men's clothing. They've also enjoyed a low turnover rate for every position except in cashier - a problem they share with every other retail outlet.

    "It's just the nature of the job," Bresler says. "We get high school and college students who are looking for a part-time job, and some of them end up getting promoted into sales and end up staying with us forever. But some never intend to do anything more than just work for six months or a year. We have lots of people who start with us part-time and end up deciding to stay. Like I did."

    Bresler, a longtime friend of Zimmer's, was a psychologist dealing with anxiety disorder before agreeing to take charge of training for Men's Wearhouse. "I made it much more behavioral," he says. "We talked a lot about what people needed to do in very behavioral terms. I joined because we shared similar values about how people should be treated and about how if they're treated that way, they can create a lot of energy in others."

    Anderson, who was hired in June, 1992, has attempted to expand on Bresler and Zimmer's principles. "There is great truth in the saying, 'Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.'" he says. "We want our employees to understand how to fish for themselves, because the environment changes, customers change, customers' needs change, our merchandise changes."

    Anderson believes that the principles of selling, such as having a developed instinct for the customer's needs, are constant no matter what is being sold. Such skills are timeless, and in his opinion, by recognizing that the principles of sales don't change - even when the audience and merchandise do - "people can adapt more easily to the change around them."

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