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Wexner, DeBartolo: Hard Workers Who Don't Like to Lose

November 26, 1986|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS and DENISE GELLENE | Times Staff Writers

Limited Chairman Leslie H. Wexner has never forgotten his unsuccessful run at Carter Hawley Hale more than two years ago, referring to it frequently in conversations and interviews.

As recently as last week, Wexner expounded to a companion during an airplane trip on Carter Hawley's retail failings as he saw them.

But despite Wexner's seeming obsession with the company that bested him in 1984, the announcement that the Columbus, Ohio, retailer had teamed with shopping mall developer Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. to try once again to take over Carter Hawley caught most observers by surprise.

"Well, you always knew in the back of his mind that he doesn't like to lose," said Robert Corea, an analyst with the Ohio Co. investment firm in Columbus.

DeBartolo himself is no stranger to takeovers, having recently lost out to Campeau Corp. in his bid to acquire Allied Stores with another investor, Paul A. Bilzerian.

The takeover offer for Carter Hawley brings together the two richest men in Ohio. Wexner, 49, has an estimated net worth of at least $1.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine, while DeBartolo, 77, is worth about $900 million.

Wexner, who opened his first Limited store in 1963, is considered by many to be one of the nation's top-notch retailers. DeBartolo is the country's largest shopping mall developer.

And both men share a love of working to excess, associates say.

The Limited's most dramatic growth has come since the women's specialty retailer entered the acquisitions race in 1978.

Its first purchase was Mast Industries, which subcontracts overseas for the Limited's extremely successful lines of private-label merchandise. The Limited followed with the 1982 purchases of Roaman's Sizes Unlimited stores, Victoria's Secret lingerie shops and the troubled Lane Bryant large-size fashion stores. In 1984, the company bought 240 Pic-A-Dilly stores and converted them to Sizes Unlimited operations. Then in 1985, the Limited purchased the ailing 750-chain Lerner Stores and the chic Henri Bendel store in New York.

Savvy Merchandising

Today, the Limited has 1,823 stores as well as catalogue operations, and the company forecasts 5,000 stores by 1991. Wexner recently predicted that sales will pass the $3-billion mark for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 1987, compared to $2.4 billion last year.

The Limited's success stems from savvy merchandising and strict attention to detail, down to the company's state-of-the-art computerized sales and distribution systems.

Wexner has said he is not interested in buying a department store, leading analysts to speculate that he is most interested in Carter Hawley's specialty units: Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman-Marcus and Contempo Casuals.

In 1984, Wexner "saw in Carter Hawley Hale a specialty store group that was not being appropriately managed, and it hasn't gotten any better since," McEvoy said.

60 Shopping Malls

Wexner's partner, DeBartolo, is a Youngstown, Ohio, real estate magnate who owns 60 shopping malls across the nation, including the Mission Viejo Mall in Orange County. DeBartolo also has interests in office buildings, hotels and condominiums around the country. About 20% of his properties are in Florida, and the rest are mainly scattered throughout the northeast.

DeBartolo hates to lose and was deeply disappointed by his defeat in the takeover battle for Allied, associates said. Those who know the intensely private DeBartolo say he isn't motivated by monetary gain but by a strong drive to tackle bigger and greater challenges.

"Anyone else would be satisfied with what he's accomplished," said Dick A. Greco Jr., vice president in charge of the Southeast region for the privately held Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. "But he never dwells on achievement. He never sits back and says, 'This is it.' "

Until recently, DeBartolo was perhaps better known for his sports interests than his vast real estate holdings. He owns the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League. He also owns three race tracks in Ohio, Louisiana and Illinois. His son Edward Jr. owns the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League.

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