By Claire Zillman
November 13, 2013

CEOs say the darndest things

Any teenager with a summer job in retail knows the principle tenant of sales: The customer is always right. That sentiment, as basic as it may seem, doesn’t always find its way up the chain of command. And when it finally penetrates the C-suite, it’s often too late. Here are some business execs and business founders who not only said their customers were wrong but insulted their client base in the worst way.

Chip Wilson

Lululemon (LULU) founder Chip Wilson was forced to apologize on Friday after he essentially called a segment of his customers too fat for the brand. “Some women’s bodies just don’t actually work” for the company’s $100 yoga pants, he said during a Bloomberg TV interview. Later Wilson said that he was “sad for the repercussions” of his actions. The remarks certainly won’t help the brand recover from its see-through-pants debacle and subsequent stock plunge from earlier this year.

Mike Jeffries

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries said that he only wants his company to market to “cool, good-looking people,” according to a 2006 Salon article that came back to haunt the executive this spring. In the article, he also admitted that his store was exclusionary since “a lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes.]” The resurrection of the comments prompted a viral backlash against the store as young people started donating unworn Abercrombie garments to the homeless. Jeffries said on Facebook in May 2013 that he regretted that his “choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.”

John Mackey

John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods (WFM), was the target of criticism from his store’s customer base after he compared the Affordable Care Act to “fascism” during an interview with NPR in January 2013. The store’s customers, typically characterized as progressive-minded organic and health food fanatics, bombarded the company’s Facebook page to express their outrage; some promised to boycott the store so long as he was in charge. Mackey later said he regretted his “poor word choice.”

Dan Cathy

Chick-fil-A Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy sparked backlash from marriage equality supporters in July 2012 when he responded, “guilty as charged” to a question from the Baptist Press about his restaurant’s support of the biblical definition of marriage. His comments incited boycotts of the restaurant, and even prompted Boston’s mayor to say that he no longer wanted the chain in his city. In lieu of an apology, the fast food chain said that, going forward, it would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

Michael O'Leary

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Irish airline Ryanair, said that customers who showed up at an airport without printing boarding passes were “stupid.” O’Leary made the comments in September 2012 following a Facebook rant by a passenger who was forced to pay £236 in fees to print her family’s boarding passes at the airport. O’Leary said that anyone who didn’t like the airline’s printing policy could “bugger off.” When shareholders suggested earlier this year that poor customer service was hurting sales, O’Leary admitted that the company “should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off.”

Tony Hayward

As his company scrambled to stop the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico following a rig explosion that killed 11 workers and temporarily halted the lives of coastal residents, BP (BP) chief executive Tony Hayward said in May 2010 that he just wanted “his life back.” He later apologized for what he called “a hurtful and thoughtless comment.” Hayward ultimately resigned, stating that he’d been “demolished and vilified” in the U.S. for the spill.

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