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Oct 16, 2018

Lululemon founder Chip Wilson was 'torn' about Oprah endorsement

Kit and Ace management buys the retailer from Chip Wilson and his family

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Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon Athletica Inc., is releasing a tell-all autobiography chronicling his life and the inner workings of the Canadian yogawear company from its inception, straight through to Calvin McDonald being named CEO this past summer.

In “Little Black Stretchy Pants: The Unauthorized Story of Lululemon,” Wilson discusses the hardships, turmoil and success that one of Canada’s most prominent entrepreneurs has faced.

Here are 10 of the most interesting highlights that Wilson reveals in his book:

1. He worked in the Alaskan Pipelines and put most of his earnings to work to create Westbeach Apparel.

While he was a student the University of Alberta, Wilson had a chance encounter at the Edmonton airport with a friend’s mother who was setting off to meet her husband working on what would become the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Thanks to his dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship (and a very forgiving U.S. border agent), Wilson was able to set off to work on the pipeline. Wilson saved nearly every single cent he earned as a pipeline worker, then bought a house, built a skate park in his backyard and went on to build up his first clothing company,  Westbeach, which sold surf, skateboard and snowboard apparel.

2. Wilson designed clothes for Aritzia in the past.    

After Wilson’s second stint as the CEO of Westbeach, he and his partner Shannon made extra money on the side designing jackets and coats for Vancouver-based Aritzia. He even helped set up the women’s fashion retailer's Asian manufacturing business.

Lolë pushes into menswear as it stays hot on Lululemon's heels

Bernard Mariette, CEO of Lolë, joins BNN Bloomberg's Catherine Murray for a look at the retailer's push into the hot men's yogawear category as it continues its rapid expansion across North America and globally.

3. Roots tried to recruit Wilson’s wife to design their clothes.

Wilson claims in his book that in 2003, the owners of Roots stopped by a store asking who the designer of Lululemon’s clothing was. His reply was simply, “My wife.”

More than 13 years later Wilson and his wife Shannon would end up wooing Roots’ then-president and Chief Operating Officer Wendy Bennison to become Kit and Ace’s president.

4. Wilson was “torn” by Oprah’s endorsement of Lululemon.

In 2010, Lululemon was at the cusp of a major mainstream breakthrough – particularly in the U.S. market where it had 75 stores at the time. Wilson writes that he was “torn” about Lululemon’s relaxed fit pants being named one of Oprah’s Favorite Things, adding in in that “the excitement over what a celebrity was wearing was something I just didn’t understand.”

5. He calls John Furlong one of his “heroes.”

While Wilson goes to great lengths in his book to share his displeasure with the Olympic Games’ business structure and model, he considers John Furlong – the mastermind behind the 2010 Vancouver Olympics – a hero and writes: “I have never seen a person inspire a country and an organization to do so much with so little. If John calls me up at any time, I am at his service.”

6. He calls HBC’s $100M bid to outfit the Canadian Olympic team one of the “dumbest business decisions I’d ever seen.”

In what started as an attempt to drive up the price Roots might have to pay for the rights to outfit Canada’s winter Olympians at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Chip Wilson writes in his book he bid for the rights at $2 million.

Unbeknownst to him, Hudson’s Bay Company ended up putting in a successful $100 million bid to outfit Canadian Olympians and become an official sponsor for three Olympics.

Instead, Lululemon famously circumvented the Olympics and its very-stringent branding trademarks with a line of clothing called "Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011 Edition."

7. Wilson says he “missed the mark” by not structuring Lululemon with dual-class shares.

Wilson devotes an entire chapter in his book to his experience and lessons from dealing with private equity investors – an experience he believes gave companies like Nike and Under Armour a shot at staying true to their core.

“When you control the board, you control the company’s culture and vision. Nike never lost its vision,” he writes.

8. He gives Christine Day much of the credit for steering Lululemon through the Great Recession, despite calling her “a terrible CEO.”

Wilson’s relationship with Day, who served as Lululemon CEO from 2008 to 2013, took a turn for the worse near the end of her tenure.  Wilson even claims in his book he made Day cry after a difficult conversation that was according to Wilson, “a long time in the making.”  

He sums up that heated conversation with, “In my mind, you’re a world-class chief operations officer. But you’re a terrible CEO.”

In the book Wilson also goes to lengths to praise the way Day steered the ship at Lululemon during the Great Recession – a period when Lululemon was one of the few retailers in the world able to track consistent growth.

9. He was grooming Delaney Schweitzer to become Lululemon’s CEO.

One of Lululemon’s early employees in its initial expansion across Canada was Delaney Schweitzer. She was swayed by Chip Wilson to join her sister Deanne at the yoga-retailer in 2001 and was impressed by her ability to quickly learn the ins and outs of retail.

After Day resigned from Lululemon, Wilson presented Schweitzer as a replacement, a move he claims in his book that the board of directors did not agree with.

Laurent Potdevin was named CEO shortly after. Subsequently, Schweitzer left her role as executive vice-president of global retail in 2015 and founded a fledging lifestyle startup in Vancouver with her sister (who also left Lululemon) called TurF in 2017.

10. He has high hopes for Lululemon’s new CEO Calvin McDonald.

Wilson goes into great detail outlining his failed relationships with each of the subsequent CEOs at Lululemon. In his book, he writes that Calvin McDonald is a good fit for the company because of his love of athletic events like triathlons. That’s something he believed was lacking with Bob Meers, Christine Day and Laurent Potdevin, and McDonald’s appointment “could be a great start of a new era,” Wilson writes.

Tune into Bloomberg Markets with Amanda Lang for an exclusive Canadian broadcast interview with Chip Wilson, Wednesday Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT.