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Men’s Wearhouse, founder at odds over selling out

Clothing chain, leery of debt, says that now is not the right time

Branding experts cautioned Men’s Wearhouse not to alienate its fans, who identify with founder George Zimmer.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Branding experts cautioned Men’s Wearhouse not to alienate its fans, who identify with founder George Zimmer.

NEW YORK — Men’s Wearhouse escalated a battle with founder and former pitchman George Zimmer, trying to explain why it fired the man who still represents the clothier in many shoppers’ minds.

The company said Tuesday that it parted ways with Zimmer because he had difficulty ‘‘accepting the fact that Men’s Wearhouse is a public company with an independent board of directors and that he has not been the chief executive officer for two years.’’ One bone of contention: He wanted to sell to an investment firm.

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Zimmer’s ability to take back control of the company seems limited. But to his fans, he’s winning. Customers are turning to the company’s Facebook and other social media outlets to express outrage. Many were threatening a boycott.

Shoppers themselves could determine what happens next. Zimmer, 64, who founded the company in 1973, has been one of advertising’s most recognizable pitchmen with his slogan: ‘‘You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.’’

‘‘I am kind of sad,’’ said Gerard McLean, 51, a Dayton, Ohio, Web developer. ‘‘George Zimmer is a trusted face and voice. Men need to hear that their fashion choices are OK.’’

McLean said he’ll continue to shop there. But he fears the stores’ no-nonsense fashion choices may fade and drive him elsewhere. ‘‘My concern is that [Men’s Wearhouse] will start listening to advice dispensed by the GQ crowd.’’

Since Men’s Wearhouse’s terse announcement last week of Zimmer’s firing as executive chairman, it had remained tight-lipped about the reasons.

But on Tuesday, the company said Zimmer, who owns just 3½ percent of the company’s stock, pushed for ‘‘significant changes that would enable him to regain control.’’ The chain said Zimmer had refused to support CEO Doug Ewert and other senior managers unless they gave in to his demands.

The retailer also said Zimmer expected veto power over certain corporate decisions, such as executive compensation, even though a board committee sets such policies.

Last week, Zimmer said that over months he and the board have disagreed about the direction of Men’s Wearhouse. On Monday, Zimmer sent a letter to the company saying he was quitting the board.

Men’s Wearhouse said Zimmer began arguing for a sale of the business but its board unanimously agrees now is not the time to sell.

The chain said a deal to go private could load the company down with debt.

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