7 Times CEOs Said Really Dumb, Customer-Alienating Things

When yoga-apparel megabrand Lululemon announced that founder Dennis “Chip” Wilson would be divesting himself of his remaining stake in the company, HQ gave no official reason for his cashing out.

But the strained relationship between the man and the brand he founded is no secret—nor is Wilson’s propensity for making statements that have left company officials red-faced.

These include Wilson’s 2013 comment that “some women’s bodies just don’t actually work” with the brand’s stretchy yoga pants. He has espoused the benefits of child labor in Third World countries. And he is reported to have made fun of how people of Japanese descent cannot pronounce his brand’s name. (He denied that last one.)

If it seems incredible that a company honcho would say such brand-damaging things, consider this: Wilson is far from an isolated case—although many, remarkably, live to tell the tale. Here, a rogue's roundup of other high-ranking executives opening their mouths only to insert their feet.

1

The Underwear-at-Work CEO

American Apparel founder Dov Charney was fired by the company's board last year, and the legal wrangling over that termination continues. (Right now, he's suing the company to pay his legal fees.) Poor financial performance and a collapsed stock price were part of the reason for his ouster, but so were years of sexual hijinks and other improprieties. Charney's most iconic quotes probably came in a 2006 deposition in a sexual harrassment lawsuit. "There were months when I was in my underwear [at the office] all the time," he said. "It became very common." And: "There are some of us that love sluts … it could also be an endearing term."

2

The Bad-Karma CEO

The little-known Satya Nadella was a surprising choice for Steve Ballmer’s successor as CEO of Microsoft in February 2014. But the bigger surprise would come eight months later, when Nadella—addressing a conference for women in the tech sector—said women shouldn’t ask their bosses for raises but rather have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Such complacency was "good karma," Nardella said.

At a time when Silicon Valley firms are facing gender discrimination suits (and pay women 78 percent of what they pay men, generally), the comment was a PR gaffe for Microsoft. Nadella managed to keep his post.

3

The Puppy-Kicking CEO

When Desmond Hague took over sports-catering brand Centerplate in 2009, he returned home run figures. But in August last year, when a video surfaced of the CEO kicking a puppy on an elevator, animal rights activists revolted. In a public apology, Hauge explained the incident as “a minor frustration with a friend’s pet” that “caused me to lose control of my emotional response"—an apology which only made the offense worse. A month after the incident, Hague was out.

4

The 11-Cent CEO

By his own account, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter “built a $3 billion company out of a broom closet.” But though his net worth is an estimated $600 million, pennies clearly matter to Schnatter, who vowed in the teeth of the 2012 healthcare debate that if the Affordable Care Act passed Congress, “we will find tactics to shallow out any Obamacare costs [and]… pass that cost on to consumers.” (The cost? About 11 to 14 cents per pie.)

He also suggested that he’d be forced to cut employee hours to avoid the healthcare mandate. Schnatter (who made $3.46 million in salary last year) remains in charge of his pizza empire.

5

The Cool-Kid CEO

Shortly after his hiring in 1992, Mike Jeffries turned the stalwart Abercrombie & Fitch into a mother church of beefcake, attracting young customers well into the oughts. But when long-dormant comments Jeffries made to Salon in 2006 surfaced—how A&F only wanted “cool, good-looking people” to shop there, and how “a lot of people don’t belong” in the brand’s threads—the backlash was fierce. In December last year—amid tanking sales—A&F showed Jeffries the door.

6

The Customer-Isn’t-Right CEO

Michael O'Leary became one of Ireland's wealthiest men by building Ryanair into perhaps the most bare-bones of all discount airlines. The company is unapologetic in its embrace of the low-fares-and-fees-for-everything model, and O'Leary is equally unapologetic that customers have no right to complain about that. "People say the customer is always right, but you know what—they’re not," he said. "Sometimes they are wrong, and they need to be told so."

He's not interested in hearing your excuses: "We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?" And he's not interested in accomodating the overweight: "Nobody wants to sit beside a really fat [person] on board. We have been frankly astonished at the number of customers who don’t only want to tax fat people but torture them." Funny thing is, it all seems to be working: Ryanair recently posted record profits.

Recommended articles