SOUTH PORTLAND — Jimmy Gendron is as happy as a clam.

Twice a week, he breaks out his crisp white shirt and perfectly knotted necktie, dons his charcoal, pinstriped, double-breasted suit, slips into his spit-shined penny loafers (complete with the pennies) and heads for his appointed position just inside the entrance to Men’s Wearhouse off Running Hill Road.

“Good afternoon!” he exclaims to every customer who walks in during his 2½-hour shift each Monday and Wednesday afternoon.

Extending his hand, he continues, “Welcome to Men’s Wearhouse! My name is James Gendron. I’m your greeter. Can I get you coffee, or water?”

Jimmy, 41, has Down syndrome. And if you think that keeping guys like him active and engaged in society is a job for only government-funded social service agencies, think again.

Businesses do it, too.

“He’s such an important part of our store team,” said Tim Dickerson, a wardrobe consultant. “And he’s an important part of this company.”

Indeed. Jimmy, it turns out, is the only greeter in the 1,200-store Men’s Wearhouse chain. And, it also turns out, he’s a favorite of company owner and founder George Zimmer (known to most of us as the guy on TV who says in his baritone voice, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”).

“George? I love George!” said Jimmy, who nearly fainted the day Zimmer showed up at the South Portland store and shook Jimmy’s hand. “Me and George, we’re the boss!”

It all started seven years ago.

Jimmy, who had held a few similar jobs in years past, was out of work and attending the day services program at Creative Work Systems, a Portland-based agency that since 1967 has quietly provided group homes, job placement and other support to hundreds of people with disabilities all over southern Maine.

“His self-esteem had just plummeted,” recalled Terri O’Brien of Saco, Jimmy’s mother, who has known since he was a child that Jimmy is at his best when he’s around people.

“He’s about 3 or 4 years old if you test him,” O’Brien said. “But socially, he’s better than 90 percent of the people I know.”

That charm was not lost on Tenney Swift, who back in 2003 was an art specialist at Creative Work Systems. She was a friend of Dickerson, who at the time managed the Men’s Wearhouse store.

“She told me she knew this guy who was friendly and loved to get dressed up,” recalled Dickerson. “And she knew I worked at Men’s Wearhouse and thought it might be a good fit.”

The job interview was short and to the point:

“So Jimmy, we have to figure out how much to pay you,” said Dickerson. “But I want you to tell me, how much per hour do you think you’re worth?”

Jimmy didn’t miss a beat.

“Seven hundred dollars,” he replied.
“Hmmm, that’s a little high,” said Dickerson. “Can you make me another offer?”

“Five hundred,” said Jimmy.

Dickerson finally suggested a figure – still well above minimum wage – and asked if Jimmy could live with it.

“Well,” said Jimmy, “I can start with that.”

The rest is Men’s Wearhouse history.

Dickerson e-mailed Zimmer, who immediately put Jimmy on the payroll as the Men’s Wearhouse’s first – and still only – store greeter.

And there on the payroll, through good times and bad, Jimmy has stayed.

He’s the guy who begins each shift by bestowing a hug on every female employee in the store. They love it.

He’s the guy who wears a tuxedo each year to the company’s holiday party at the Copley Marriott in Boston. It is, his mother attests, “the high point of his year.”

He’s also the guy who, if not for a company that measures true success by more than its bottom line, would go each day from his group home in Scarborough to his day program in Portland with little if any contact with the business world he so clearly worships.

The feeling, in this little slice of the retail sector, is clearly mutual.

“As George (Zimmer) has said, if everybody in this company had Jimmy’s enthusiasm, we’d probably double our income,” said Dickerson. “He helps us. He makes us more aware of the fact that the limitations we put on special-needs people are bigger than the limitations they put on themselves. They’re vibrant, enthusiastic people.”

Men’s Wearhouse is but one of 15 businesses in Cumberland County alone that now employ Creative Work Systems clients. The others are the Maine Red Claws, Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets, Unum, Kohl’s, Amato’s, Bass Shoe Outlet, Big Lots, Marshall’s, On the Border, Toys “R” Us, T.J. Maxx, Whole Foods Market and the Workout Fitness Store.

The disabilities run the gamut, said Scott Ferris, Creative Work Systems’ program manager for employment services. Some of the workers function independently, he said, while others work alongside “coaches” assigned and paid for by the agency.

Jimmy, who has a heart condition and was diagnosed recently with hypoglycemia, needs a coach nearby for all of the five hours he works each week.

It’s not because he can’t handle the job, but because his medical conditions occasionally cause him to keel over without warning. More than once, his seizure-like spells have necessitated calls to 911.

“Other employers might be scared off by that, but these guys are fantastic,” Ferris said. “They’ve let him continue working without getting hypervigilant. It’s terrific.”

That it is – despite what the insurance carriers, the liability lawyers and other skeptics might say. If there’s one thing in this store that defies a price tag, it’s the look on Jimmy’s face when an incoming customer lights up, shakes his hand and tells him it’s nice to meet him too.

“I did it!” Jimmy said to his small audience after one such exchange Wednesday. “I did it!”

And would he mind marking the occasion by posing for a picture?

“You’ve got yourself a deal!” Jimmy replied. “Let’s do it!”

One more thing about Jimmy’s wardrobe.

Attached to his double-breasted jacket is a small gold pin. He got it two years ago, on his fifth anniversary as a Men’s Wearhouse employee – and he’s not shy about telling visitors what it signifies.

“I love my job,” Jimmy said, flashing his trademark smile.

 Looking around his dream come true, he added, “And I love here so much.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:
[email protected]