Leadership

Why the CEO of a billion-dollar company refuses to wear a suit

Man wearing suit
Bill Diodato | Getty Images

Even though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg regularly rocks jeans and a T-shirt at work, most executives still see the staid suit as their uniform.

Not Sheldon Yellen, CEO of property restoration company Belfor. He refuses to wear a suit and tie to work, preferring to convey an approachable, down-to-earth leadership style.

The decision to ditch dressy office wear came after an encounter with one of his 7,000 employees in 2011.

"One of my employees came up to me and said: 'You know I did see you once. You were in our office. I saw you, but I didn't formally meet you,'" Yellen recalled.

Yellen asked him why he didn't greet him or introduce himself.

The employee said, "Well, it was so intimidating to see you in a suit and tie."

That moment touched a nerve. While Yellen now oversees a company that operates in 31 countries and posted approximately $1.5 billion in sales for 2015, he came from very humble beginnings and also often saw the professional world as intimidating.

Sheldon Yellen (center) said appearing approachable as a CEO is important to him.
Source: Belfor
Sheldon Yellen (center) said appearing approachable as a CEO is important to him.

"I said, 'That's it,'" he recalled. "If wearing a suit and tie intimated one of my people, shame on me. And from that day forward, I have not been in a suit and tie."

His executive assistant confirms that he typically wears a "nice pair of jeans, a nice shirt and a sport coat."

It was a big change for him. Until that day about five years ago, Yellen used to always wear suits.

"I grew up very poor on the streets of Detroit on welfare," he said. "So as I got into the professional world, I would spend every dime I had on clothes — on suits and ties."

Wearing a suit and tie made Yellen feel more confident and helped him fit into a world that previously was foreign to him.

"I would wear a suit and tie seven days a week," he said.

Now that the CEO has opted for a more approachable look, he feels it's easier for workers — many of whom wear jeans and sneakers, since they're on site repairing properties — to talk to him.

"You can't force a culture that does not reflect who you are." -Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor

Fostering a unique leadership style should be important to every business owner, he said. His culture revolves around friendliness and communication. In fact, he encourages employees to ditch their smartphones during meetings and he also hand-writes birthday cards to each of his employees.

"I want people to talk to me," he said. "You can't force a culture that does not reflect who you are."