Les Wexner succeeds at leading Limited Brands by being a good teacher

Les Wexner felt very insecure about the opening of his first store. It was 1963 and the youngster, a son of Russian immigrants, had watched and learned from his parents’ tireless work ethic. He had worked in their small store named Leslie’s in downtown Columbus and gained the belief that anything in life is possible, if you are willing to work hard for it. And he was ready to launch a business of his own, but he wasn’t sure it was going to work.

He had no idea at the time that this single store would be the first piece of a business that would one day register more than $8 billion in annual sales and employ more than 92,000 people.

“I wasn’t sure it had any commercial value,” says Wexner, founder, chairman and CEO of Limited Brands Inc. “Then people started coming in and buying and I thought, ‘Gee, it was a pretty good idea.’ So I was curious to play with the idea. Some of it was right. Some of it was wrong. It became more proven from a customer point of view. I could make money and earn a living, and I was very happy, because I wasn’t going to be poor.”

Indeed, not. Limited operates more than 2,600 specialty stores across the United States and its brands are sold in more than 700 company-owned and franchised locations around the world.

“You have to be curious,” Wexner says. “People who are really curious have an enormous advantage. They’ve had it in the past. Curiosity and the ability to see things will be, as I look into the future, a higher and higher priority.”

Curiosity helped Wexner build a business that today comprises some of the most recognizable brands in the world. Bath & Body Works, White Barn Candle Co., La Senza, Henri Bendel and, of course, Victoria’s Secret are present in nearly every mall and shopping center one can think of.

“I had this idea about creating a lingerie business,” Wexner says. “People said, ‘You’re entitled to make a mistake, but it’s not a business. You can’t make money selling lingerie.’”

Victoria’s Secret generated $5.3 billion in 2009 sales, part of the company’s overall tally of $8.6 billion in sales companywide.

Wexner believes such success can be achieved when you realize that in addition to being a great leader, you need to be a great teacher.