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The power of people

By Kerry Gold | April 1, 2014

Chip Wilson learned that handing over full control of the management reins when his beloved company went public was far more difficult than he had envisioned. The founder of lululemon athletica spoke forthrightly about relinquishing his natural tendency to usher the business along, as he had since he founded the company in 1998.

“That’s the number one issue my wife and I both have, is moving out of management, definitely,” Chip says. “It’s frustrating, because we probably think we’re the best in the world at it. And now we have a forever non-compete [clause] as long as we own so much of the company, so it’s a tough situation for us. I never recognized this would happen when I went public.”

He has, from the start, simply been “selling Kitsilano to the world,” as he puts it.

The idea for an apparel company that specialized in athletic street clothing inspired by snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing grew out of Kitsilano culture, and outdoor-loving youth whose primary focus was pushing their bodies to the limit. The genesis of lululemon came from a woman who embodied the West Coast spirit of the educated, active, independent and environmentally conscientious woman who needed fashionable athletic wear to match her lifestyle. There were a lot of other women like her, and Chip spotted a huge gap in the market. 

The key to realizing his vision, and his success as a manager, has always been employee engagement, devising new hiring practices to find his core employees, and fostering goal setting, integrity and responsibility. As he puts it, don’t look to hire great people: hire them and then teach them to be great, and to represent the company’s vision and core values.

 “I’d worked for 25, 30 years in an oil company and Westbeach and all that, and I just didn’t find people I really liked to work with, because I found people didn’t have integrity, they weren’t responsible, they complained, and they didn’t know where they were going in life, blaming everyone else for their life not working for them.

I wondered, ‘What would it be like to work in a company where people didn’t bring personal issues to work, what would that look like?’ So I did it first for me, but then a year into it, I could see that this was the template for building a great, great company.”

But a good entrepreneur recognizes that everything is evolving. There’s been a cultural shift from body to mind, says Wilson, who’s working with his wife on incorporating the growth of meditation practice into his next project. 

“I think meditation is definitely the obvious next step. Nobody thought money could be made out of yoga, and it ended up pretty good. Can it be made out of meditation right now? I don’t know, but it’s the next big social trend, I would say.”

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