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Behind the Scenes at Lululemon

Aug 29, 2013
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Vancouver, British Columbia

Flying into Vancouver, Beth and I were immediately struck by the area's fresh air and alpine views. Lululemon's (lulu) active employees often play in the city's blend of beach and mountains, which hosts the company's annual SeaWheeze half-marathon and its 10,014 runners.

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A company town

Vancouver, in its own low-key Canadian way, is a company town. In the summer, Lululemon puts on waterfront yoga classes overlooking the North Shore. And, as we quickly discovered, visitors shouldn't be surprised to find a Lululemon yoga mat as an amenity in their hotel rooms. Chip Wilson, Lululemon's founder, has also donated big money to Vancouver. In 2010, he coughed up $1.5 million to keep the 14 pieces comprising Chinese sculptor Yue Minjun's "A-maze-ing Laughter" on public display -- and last winter, Wilson spent $8 million to build the Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Lululemon added an additional $4 million of its own).

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"Blissology"-time

We joined employees and executives in a "Blissology" yoga class, led by Eoin Finn, at Lululemon's Store Support Center (company-speak for headquarters). Halfway through a series of sun salutations, SeaWheeze mascot Sasquatch interrupted the class with a Warrior II pose. Weird? Yes. Uncommon? Absolutely not. The company vibe lives up to its quirky reputation and random moments of chaos abound.

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Goal-setting class

During orientation, new hires spend three days setting one-, five-, and 10-year personal, professional, and health goals. Former Lululemon exec Darrell Kopke, who was one of the company's founding employees, says he helped structure the training program and says it stemmed from Wilson's tendency to dream big. In 2002, Kopke and Lululemon's dozen employees gathered in Wilson's living room and decided that, one day, they wanted to be Nike's (nke) No. 1 competitor. At the time, such a goal seemed insane -- but the corporate strategy they created laid the groundwork for Lululemon and its expansion to a company now valued at $7.8 billion.

In this image, Chloe Gow-Jarrett led us in a mini goal-setting session. We identified our negative qualities, the positive influences in our lives, and closed our eyes while mediating to dream up a story of how we want our lives to look in 10 years. Gow-Jarrett has been a goal coach for 11 years.

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The Lululemon store varieties

In 1998, Lululemon's first location was on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighborhood. The building has since been demolished, but its flagship store (top left) is just across the street of that original plot. Just down the street, Ivivva (top right) sells multi-sport clothes to young girls. Its adolescent décor sprinkles the store with ballet shoes, a catwalk in the dressing room, and a "Dad's Corner" (where, during our visit, a bored father snoozed as his daughter shopped). Across town, Lululemon's Lab (bottom) churns out street-style items in mainly monochromatic colors, which are made in-house and only available at that store. The incubator molds young talent and creates a path for the designers to one day join Lululemon's main product team.

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Wilson's palatial home

Wilson's $35 million beachfront home is the quintessential West Coast Canadian palace -- a linear composition of cement, wood, and imported German glass overlooking the miles of cool water separating residential Point Grey from West Vancouver's green mountains. In 2002, he and his wife Shannon set a goal of having a $10 million house and $20 million cash in the bank by 2012 (goal-setting at work). They hit that target by 2005 -- and this seven-year home project is near enough to completion that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were able to play a concert in Wilson's backyard in August, a surprise for Shannon's birthday.

That sort of blind ambition is classic Wilson. His lofty goals are legendary among the company's employees. They're taken seriously, as he's made many of them -- like creating a billion-dollar yoga company and building this palatial home -- a lucrative reality. Take his rationale behind the success of Lululemon: In a blog post on the company's website, Wilson penned an essay on the rise of the Super Girl. The invention of the pill, he claimed, led to the era of the divorced "Power Woman," who craved gender equality at work and at home. These women birthed the "Super Girl," whose dad got her into sports because he didn't know what else to do with a daughter he only saw on weekends. Influenced by Saturday morning cartoon superheroes, the Super Girls grew into well-educated, athletic, and fashionable women who practiced yoga to manage stress -- hence the birth of the Lululemon customer.

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Balancing work and life

Wilson has five sons: two with his first wife and three with his current wife, Shannon. There aren't distinct lines between Wilson's personal and professional life -- Shannon was one of Lululemon's first designers, and his eldest, 24-year-old J.J., was recently named the creative director of Lululemon men's line -- and that's the way Wilson likes it. In the early days, the company's culture encouraged a balance between work and personal life. More recently, however, some former employees feel it's strayed from Wilson's original intent. As a public company, Lululemon has financial targets to meet and investors to please -- and that, in turn, has created an environment that critics say has turned the culture into nothing more than a language that's used to purge Lululemon of employees who challenge the company's long-term vision.

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In-your-face integrity

Laminated posters detailing Harvard Business School professor Michael Jensen's teachings on corporate integrity paint Lululemon's bathroom stalls. Wilson is a big fan of capitalist Ayn Rand and embedded a code of personal responsibility into the Lululemon culture. "Integrity is a big part of Lululemon and really finding the veils of integrity where people think they are or aren't in integrity," says Wilson. Seven Lululemon employees took Jensen's course over the summer, and Wilson believes Jensen's message on integrity is transformational. "It'll make you an extra $5 million in your life if you read it."

Kopke says Wilson self-describes as "more right wing than Atilla the Hun" and certainly lacks tact, but has an innate commitment to honesty. He expresses generosity through personal empowerment. "Here's a Chip-ism: Instead of giving money to charity necessarily, he will give money to charity in order to create way more money. So he will create projects for charities to make more money," Kopke explains. "And then it's up to that charity to take advantage of that opportunity in order to have success. And it's the same as his people strategy [at Lululemon]."

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Holders of the Flame

Each year, the company turns several employees and members of its community who embody the Lululemon culture into bouncing action figures. This group of bobble-heads displayed in the Lululemon Store Support Center lobby is referred to as the "Holders of the Flame." Some of the honorees: Finn, Gow-Jarrett, Wilson's former neighbors (and current Lululemon executives) Eric Petersen, Deanne Schweitzer, and Delaney Schweitzer, and Wilson's sister-in-law (and Lululemon culture consultant) Susanne Conrad.

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The Grind

On our last day visiting Lululemon, we climbed the Grind. No matter your athleticism level, this 1.8-mile path straight up Vancouver's Grouse Mountain pushes you to the max. The Grind is a staple in Lululemon employees' vocabularies and workouts. Annually, Wilson runs it the same number of times as his age -- and the company originally suggested we interview him while trekking up the Grind (this was quickly vetoed).

As we huffed-and-puffed up the mountain, our foreheads glistening with sweat and our hearts thudding in our chests, we questioned our decision to climb the rocky beast. But once we reached the top, the sense of accomplishment and the amazing view quickly shut us up. We suddenly understood why Lululemon uses the Grind as a metaphor for challenging projects -- and perhaps even its uncertain future.

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