CEO Live

UPDATED: Tithing “robber barons” inspired Wexner's philanthropy

Posted by Kitty McConnell on October 12, 2013

As a young entrepreneur, L Brands founder, chairman and CEO Leslie H. Wexner knew he wanted to do more with his life than run a multi-billion-dollar retail empire.

“Sometimes we have to be inspired to step up.  Sometimes we underestimate the significant impact we can make as individuals. Reminding ourselves of our responsibility to make our communities better is an opportunity we should seize every time we have the chance,” Wexner said in an email exchange with Columbus CEO following his speech Friday before a sold-out crowd of business leaders at the Columbus Chamber’s inaugural “CEO Insights” series.

Watch the video here

Much of Wexner’s discussion yesterday with WBNS-TV’s Kristyn Hartman focused on the influence his father (a Russian immigrant and Columbus businessman) and the great American industrialists had on his development as a philanthropist.

Wexner, 76 and an avid reader, was influenced early in his career by a biography of John D. Rockefeller. Wexner respected Rockefeller as a business man who put a humanistic approach to his endeavor before legal or financial concerns. Rockefeller’s philanthropic innovations were “pretty creative ideas for somebody who’s a ‘robber baron,’” said Wexner.

As a young Columbus business owner, Wexner challenged himself apply his financial success and mental abilities to good works in his own community. “Can you take these things you do in your career, can you take them to the community?” Wexner asked yesterday’s audience of executives and business owners. “I think everybody has the challenge to try and make the world a better place.”

Wexner’s mentor, Banc One chief John G. McCoy, summoned the budding businessman to his office years ago and posed the same question.

“It’s a terrifying thought when you’re a businessman and a banker calls you and says ‘come to my office,’” said Wexner, generating a laugh from yesterday’s crowd. McCoy advised Wexner to “think about tithing, financially and time,” telling him, “I think you can do more.”

Wexner’s philanthropic contributions are visible across Columbus’s academic, medical and cultural institutions. In 2010, the Wexner family and the limited Brands Foundation committed a $100 million gift to his alma mater’s medical center (now the Wexner Medical Center at the Ohio State University), the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Institute.

Addressing yesterday’s Chamber audience was an honor, Wexner told Columbus CEO. “When you think about small business entrepreneurs driving the majority of job creation and accounting for half of all private sector jobs ... it is a real privilege for me to be able to spend time with such critical members of our community.  I was and am an entrepreneur…and greatly appreciate the passion, time and investment they are contributing to Central Ohio.”

(Pictured from top: Wexner at the new Limited distribution warehouse in 1985, Dispatch/File; Wexner receives an emotional ovation at the 2012 renaming of the Wexner Medical Center at the Ohio State University, Dispatch/Fred Squillance). 

CEO Live