Is Anyone’s Job Safe?

If ever we needed a reminder that all of us are potentially expendable, it certainly came recently when George Zimmer, founder and longtime commercial spokesman of Men’s Warehouse, was ousted as the company’s executive chairman by its board of directors. Citing Zimmer’s desire to sell the clothing firm to private investors as contrary to the board’s wishes, Zimmer was dismissed from the company he started in 1973, and where he has been its public face for as long as anyone can remember. As surprising as this development may seem, Zimmer is not the first individual to become estranged from an enterprise he or she seemed permanently linked to, as the following examples will attest.

Although McDonalds was founded by a pair of brothers, it was businessman Ray Kroc who successfully turned a small burger chain into a multi-billion dollar corporation. In 1953, Kroc was a multi-mixing milkshake machine salesman, who became intrigued when Richard and Maurice McDonald, owners of a small hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, ordered eight of his mixers. Kroc saw the huge potential of the McDonald’s operation, and convinced the McDonald brothers to allow him to aggressively franchise their business. By 1961, Kroc had become frustrated by his two partners’ intent to limit the number of McDonald restaurants to only a few locations, so Kroc offered to buy them out for $2.7 million dollars, plus 1.9% of future royalties. (It was a handshake deal, which allowed Kroc to renege on the royalties, due to it not being in writing). As part of the agreement, Richard and Maurice were able to retain the San Bernardino property, where they opened a hamburger stand called “The Big M.” In brutal fashion, Kroc surrounded “The Big M” with a number of McDonald restaurants, forcing the actual McDonald boys out of the burger business forever.

Colonel Harlan Sanders franchised his first KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) restaurant in 1952, and today, 32 years after his death, remains the official face of the company. But his relationship with the business he founded did not always go well during his lifetime. After selling the KFC Corporation in 1964 for $2 million dollars, Sanders eventually went on to become the company’s most strident critic. In 1973, the Colonel sued KFC’s parent company, Heublein Inc. over alleged misuse of his image and associating his name with products he had not helped develop. Two years later, Heublein unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publically compared KFC’s gravy to “wallpaper paste.” I always thought it was the wallpaper industry that should have sued.

Legendary football coach Paul Brown’s association with Cleveland’s All-American Football Conference franchise was obviously close from its 1946 beginning…the team was named after him. For all four seasons of the AAFC’s existence, the Cleveland Browns won the league title, and continued their success in 1950, winning the NFL championship their first year in the league. All told, Brown’s Cleveland teams played for the title each of his first ten years as head coach, cementing his status as one of the most successful NFL coaches in history. But after 1955, the Browns began a slow drift downward, frequently falling out of championship contention over the next seven seasons. After finishing 3rd for the second straight year in 1962, Paul Brown was let go from the team he had led for 17 years. But pro-football had not heard the last from Paul Brown. In the late 1960’s, Brown joined a group of investors who were granted an American Football League franchise in Cincinnati. When the Cincinnati Bengals began operations in 1968, Paul Brown was named head coach. In 1970, after a 1-6 start, the Bengals won their final seven games, winning their first AFC Central Division title. One of the teams Cincinnati defeated during their streak…the Cleveland Browns. Paul Brown described that 14-10 win as “my greatest victory.”

For much of their existence, the Beach Boys were a family operation. Not only were three of the California rock group’s founding members brothers (Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson), but also, during their formative years, their manager was the Wilson boys’ father, Maury Wilson. This arrangement made sense in the early days, when the Beach Boys were not yet a major act, and a concert tour simply meant loading up the family station wagon. At the outset, managing the group was no more complicated than coaching a little league team, but by 1964, the Beach Boys were selling millions of records, and the job had outgrown Maury, whose previous occupation was selling industrial equipment. Not only was Maury inexperienced in the higher echelons of the music business, but he also constantly blurred the line between manager and father, imposing strict curfews on the road, fining the boys for tardiness and bad language, and even maneuvering band member David Marks out of the group in 1963. Even worse, Maury, a frustrated songwriter, began to battle with son Brian over the musical direction of the group. In late 1964, the Beach Boys had had enough, and fired dear old dad right before their first ever European tour.

Eager to prove that he was the reason for the Beach Boys’ success, Maury Wilson found five other young men, and used them to form a Beach Boys clone group called the Sunrays, who enjoyed only brief and moderate success. But Maury still had his hands in the Beach Boys’ pocket, as he co-owned the royalty rights to the group’s songs with son Brian. In 1969, without Brian’s permission or knowledge, Maury song the entire catalog to A & M records for a reported $700,000, a fraction of its value. In 1990, 17 years after Maury Wilson’s death, Brian Wilson successfully sued the law firm he felt had misrepresented him in the transaction, and collected $25 million dollars in lost revenue and unpaid royalties. After that settlement was completed, Beach Boys lead-singer Mike Love sued Brian for an equal share of the court winnings, claiming that Brian and Maury had withheld songwriting credit from Mike on 35 songs. Mike went on to win that legal battle, and the acrimony it caused between Brian and Mike demonstrated Maury Wilson’s ability to create problems from the grave.

Then there are those that held cushy positions as TV spokespersons for high profile products, only to be done in by their own foolish behavior. Entertainer Anita Bryant was hired by the Florida Citrus Commission in 1969, and was featured singing “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree” for almost a decade until her outspoken stance against homosexuality led to her contract being allowed to lapse. Actor Ben Curtis had a sweet gig as “Steven,” the Dell Computer lad beginning in 2000, but his popular “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” commercials ceased in 2003 when Curtis was arrested for criminal possession of marijuana. And who can forget the lovely young model appearing on the box of Ivory Snow soap 40 years ago? One can only imagine Proctor & Gamble’s embarrassment when that same model, Marilyn Chambers, turned up in the pornographic film classic, “Behind the Green Door.” I still wonder what “99 & 44/100% pure” was supposed to mean.

But there is another example that may cause George Zimmer to take heart. In 1985, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, was driven out of the company he helped start, when CEO John Sculley successfully pulled off a boardroom coup. Rather than conduct a lengthy lawsuit, Jobs founded NeXT Computer with $7 million. Attracting outside venture capital, Jobs made NeXT Computer a success, and in 1996, sold the company to Apple for $427 million. Apple’s acquisition of NeXT brought Steve Jobs back to Apple, where he eventually became CEO. I can hear the wheels turning in George Zimmer’s head as we speak.