Reacting successfully to a global industry is one thing. But creating a global industry? That’s another gig entirely.
University of Calgary alumnus Chip Wilson, BA’80, founded athletic-apparel retail giant Lululemon nearly two decades ago. So ubiquitous have his yoga pants become since then, it’s tough to recall a time when stretchy technical wear wasn’t the preferred uniform for young urban women in, and out, of fitness studios from here to Tokyo.
Still, while it’s easy to assume that Wilson — who initially shot to success with his surf-wear company, Westbeach — is blessed with a golden touch, he’s quick to share how his brand of entrepreneurial thinking is, in fact, rooted in learned skills and hard-won discipline.
On Dec. 1, Wilson sat down for a special Wayne Henuset Entrepreneurship Speaker Series fireside chat with Jim Dewald, dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, to talk about education, inspiration, and paying close attention to what matters.
Formal — and informal — education
Wilson graduated from UCalgary with an undergraduate degree in economics that, he says, took seven years to complete. “I looked at university as a tool. The other tools in my life were sports and running small businesses,” said Wilson. “I had a lot of failures, and a lot of successes — and every one of them served as learning for my future.”
No matter what courses he was immersed in (never more than three per semester), Wilson said he also read obsessively outside his area of study — a habit that served to connect him, much more so than his classmates, to what was going on in the world. “I consumed three or four newspapers every day and, by the time I was 25, had read the top 200 novels from the Library of Congress. I was a fanatic reader, never driven by money, but by ideas.”
As Dewald put it, Wilson is, famously, “brilliant at seeing trends.” Indeed, the Vancouver-based entrepreneur said he couldn’t help but notice how quickly yoga was growing in the mid-1990s. “I couldn’t have predicted how popular it would become, but I did notice that my yoga class went from 30 to 60 people in a matter of one month,” said Wilson, long a devoted practitioner.
Wilson interfaced his observations about yoga with his habit of seeking news stories and statistics in groups of three. “First, I read that 60 per cent of university graduates were women, then I noticed there was a lot being said about breast cancer and, at the same time, I noticed that superheroes were now often women — it was women, not always men, in Lycra.” This trifecta of seemingly unrelated information moved Wilson to take a risk.
Back when he was running Westbeach, Wilson said he worked 18 hours a day for 18 years. Eventually, he said, “I didn’t want to work that hard anymore.” Wilson took his time setting up Lululemon, mindfully allowing a culture to build and organically define the brand.
In contrast, Wilson said, his family’s newest venture, upscale technical-apparel retailer Kit and Ace, grew a little too quickly (the company recently laid off 20 per cent of its staff at the Vancouver head office). “We went really fast, and we really felt like we knew what we were doing,” he said, referring to the Kit and Ace team that includes his wife, Shannon, and son, J.J.
“We opened 50 stores in a year and a half.” That model, Wilson admitted, overlooked valuable culture-building to some degree. “We grew so fast that we haven’t had a chance to really connect with people in our stores, or develop the way we wanted,” he said.
‘Everyone is great’
One of Wilson’s biggest priorities in building his businesses is, he said, “to treat every employee like they could be their own CEO.” Rather than wait for staff to be good, he added, “We asked ourselves, ‘What would it be like if we decided that everyone was great right off the bat, as soon as they walked through the door, and they just needed the tools to do it?’” The company thus invests $2,000 in training for every new employee — an investment that has paid off in developing Lululemon’s unique culture.
Thanks to high-level training, Wilson said he could take “a 25-year-old employee to any of our stores anywhere in the world and they would perform to top expectation. I think people live into the dream that you have for them.”
Wilson left his audience with parting advice for young potential entrepreneurs. “It’s a matter of looking at the expertise you have,” he said. “If I was a creative guy, without much money, I’d want to pair myself with an organizational person who had money. People think they can do it all, but there’s so much expertise needed in running a business.
“Partnerships … can be messy, but it means you’ve got somebody in it with you to talk you through things, and to allow you to take a holiday.”
Philosophically speaking, Wilson recommended a tried-and-true scenario to talk oneself through decision-making: “I make a lot of decisions by imagining I’m on my deathbed — I ask my 90-year-old self, ‘What did this decision fulfill in my life?’ You’ve got to take a long-term view.”