Mensches of the week: Arnold and Ellen Zetcher


Courtesy of Washington University (Photo: Jason Elias)

Jordan Palmer

Former St. Louisan Arnold Zetcher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Olin Business School in 1962, is the retired chairman, president and CEO of Talbots Inc. He grew up in University City and attended Washington University with the help of financial aid and loans. He said that without this support, his parents couldn’t have afforded to send him, the youngest of three, to college.

Now, Zetcher has paid it forward. Last spring, Washington University announced Zetcher and his wife, Ellen, made a significant commitment to establish an endowed scholarship for undergraduate students. The Arnold and Ellen Zetcher Scholarship will be open to students with financial need entering any of the university’s four undergraduate schools.

Photo Courtesy of Ron Zetcher

In recognition of the gift, last week on September 30th, the university officially renamed the South 40 House on the South 40 residential area of the Danforth Campus the Arnold and Ellen Zetcher House.

The Gift

The Zetchers’ commitment of at least $8 million in outright and estate gifts will advance the university’s effort to adopt a need-blind admissions policy, a goal that Martin announced during his October 2019 inaugural address.


“I am truly grateful to the Zetchers for helping us remove financial barriers for outstanding students who aspire to attend Washington University,” Martin said. “Arnold and Ellen are passionate about expanding educational access to talented young people and providing them with the opportunity to reach their full potential.

“Universitywide scholarship gifts like the Zetchers’ — those that provide flexibility in allocating support to the best undergraduate students regardless of which school they attend — are key to helping us become need-blind in our admissions practice. It is the university’s moral responsibility to not let a student’s ability to pay tuition play a factor in admittance decisions, and with the generosity of alumni and friends like the Zetchers, we will be able to move there in due course,” Martin added.

Who is Arnold Zetcher?

Zetcher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Olin Business School in 1962, is retired chairman, president and CEO of Talbots Inc.

“I don’t think I would have had the opportunities that I had in my professional career were it not for my Washington University education,” Zetcher said. “That’s one of the reasons Ellen and I are so excited about what we’re doing with this scholarship — giving talented students the opportunity to have the same kind of educational experience that I had.

“When we heard about Chancellor Martin’s goal for need-blind admissions, we realized that our gift could help make that happen. To be able to play a life-changing role in so many young people’s lives is an honor,” said Zetcher.

“We both feel very strongly about the importance of education and its ability to enable people to move ahead in life, especially in these difficult times,” added Ellen Zetcher, a graduate of Northwestern University.

Arnold Zetcher also said he is honored to have his family name associated with Washington University.

“The naming of the building is very important to us as well because it’s a way for the Zetcher name to live on,” he said. “It will be nice to recognize my parents, who were St. Louisans for their entire adult lives.”

The Zetchers are longtime supporters of the university and Olin Business School. They established an endowed scholarship in the business school in 2003.

Arnold, who has fond memories of his time as a student and of serving as president of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, expressed interest years ago in becoming more engaged with the university. He has been a member of Olin’s national council since 1995, and he served on the Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2013 before being named an emeritus trustee.

The Zetchers have hosted and attended a variety of alumni and regional cabinet events over the years in both Boston and Los Angeles, their current home. Arnold was a founding chair of the university’s Boston Regional Cabinet.

He received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Olin in 1993 and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the university during Founders Day in 1995.

Zetcher retired from Talbots in 2008 after 20 years leading the company. He joined the company in 1987 as president, became CEO in 1988 and then chairman in 2000. Under his leadership, the company grew from a small privately held regional company with 109 stores to a $2.2 billion publicly traded retailer with more than 1,000 Talbots stores in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Businessweek named him one of the country’s Top 25 Managers of the Year in 2000 and, that same year, the National Retail Federation named him Retailer of the Year. In 2002, he received the National Retail Federation’s Gold Medal, the industry’s highest honor. He also served as chairman of the board of the National Retail Federation from 2004 to 2006.

Prior to joining Talbots, Zetcher served in a number of senior executive positions, including as chairman and CEO of the John Breuner Co., a home furnishings company; chairman and CEO of Kohl’s Food Stores; and chairman and CEO of Bonwit Teller & Co., a New York City-based women’s specialty retailer.

Zetcher, who as a student worked evenings and weekends selling men’s and children’s clothing at two St. Louis stores, began his retail career at the Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc.

After Zetcher’s retirement from Talbots, he and his wife became thoroughbred horse owners and breeders. In 2010 and 2011, they were leading owners in California, and in 2015, their horse Firing Line came in second in the Kentucky Derby to that year’s Triple Crown champion.

The Zetchers support music and arts-based organizations in Los Angeles. Ellen Zetcher, a Milwaukee native, serves on the board of the LA Opera and is a past director of the Boston Lyric Opera and Boston Ballet.