Chip Wilson: Life After Lululemon
The city’s most visible, brand-savvy billionaire, pauses after Lululemon to consider his next empire.
April 20, 2015
Vancouver, framed like a massive Edward Burtynsky print, is the fourth wall of Chip Wilson’s legendary Point Grey Road house. On a recent visit, through that expansive glass, I watch a paddleboarder inch by freighters hovering on a brilliant ocean.
This 80-minute interview is his first since Wilson — Vancouver’s most globally recognized billionaire, our Donald Trump of yoga pants — spoke in November with Bloomberg TV. That was the moment that ongoing problems with Lululemon’s products went viral, reduced to a crude meme: “Chip Wilson thinks fat chicks shouldn’t wear his clothes.” A month later, he announced his departure as chairman.
So today’s get-together is a little tense. Wilson, a PR consultant, and I sit in Wilson’s spectacular office space before that panorama of ocean, city, and mountains, after a winding trip from the locked gate, through sculpted garden, and across the small moat along the front of the building. This room is one space in a long railcar of a house that starts with an open kitchen of hyper-modern white counters and cabinets, flows into one jewel-toned living room with an iconic blue/violet Roche Bobois cushion couch, a second earth-toned living room with an identical couch in mushroom, Chip’s office, and then that of wife Shannon closing off the eastern end. The most noticeable art is the dozen or so Vanity Fair-style black-and-white photos of Chip, Shannon, and the kids, much softly glowing bare skin on view.
He betrays none of the fidgeting or restlessness that characterize so many alpha males in this town. He speaks reflectively, in a deep bass, sometimes tangling himself in slow-motion sentences. His plimsoll shoes and slim-fit red jeans are what the 20-somethings in my life would wear if they could afford haute-hipster.
Neighbours still grumble about the chaos he caused as construction on the $37-million Russell Hollingsworth design, spread across four lots on some of the city’s most expensive waterfront, ground on for five years. For possibly the first time, he is close to apologetic. “I rarely say this, but I could almost say I’m sorry. We were working 18 hours a day on Lululemon and let someone else take our wallet and time watch and run with it,” he says. “It probably got out of control.”
A lot of things need to be brought back under control. So for the next year, he’s simplifying a life that is by any measure full. On one wall, a dozen computer monitors post calendars of his meetings and track projects. As well as moving on from Lululemon, he and Shannon have started a charity — Imagine1day — to support education in Ethiopia, free of foreign aid, by 2030. Their new company, Whil, is aimed at bringing meditation to the masses. (Just managing all the money, even with advisers and consultants, is full-time employment.)
Plus, they have five boys — two from Wilson’s first marriage to Nancy (one, 25, is starting his own clothing business; the other, 24, studies commercial real estate) and their eight-year-old twins and 10-year-old, who like their father are involved in competitive swimming. Each, he says, is “a corporation of its own.”
All this simplifying is to prepare for the next productive phase — when, it appears, he is going to take a more visible hand in shaping the city. There have already been signs. In July 2012, he bought the bronze sculpture A-maze-ing Laughter for $1.5 million so it could remain in one of the city’s parks. In December that same year, he donated $8 million to Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s fashion department to fund the Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Technical Design; he has plans to help the south-of-Fraser school move itself downtown as part of an effort to turn the city into a global leader in clothing production.
And that’s only the beginning. Chip, with Shannon by his side for almost every venture, wants to do a lot more in and for the city. Buy more public art. Contribute to a competition-standard 50-metre pool that will be not just functional but beautiful. Restore heritage buildings in Gastown. And invest financially. He’s decided to put a quarter of his net worth (estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.3 billion) into Vancouver real estate.
No one could have predicted Chip Wilson would become Vancouver’s trademark businessman. His dad was a PE teacher; his mother, a home hobby sewer who filled the house with machines and patterns. He says he grew up in Calgary in poverty, which is perhaps how it looks now from Point Grey Road. Others might call it standard 1960s middle class, with a drop after his parents divorced when he was 12.
His dad remarried when he was 14. He had already been travelling some as a competitive swimmer, but an airline connection (his stepmother was a flight attendant) meant free trips all over the world. While completing high school and studying oil economics at the University of Calgary, he managed to visit Japan, Brazil, Europe… He started picking up on trends and made note of which cities had done a good job of enhancing their natural assets.
In the middle of his meandering university years and travelling, looking for clothes that would fit someone of his height and build, he started producing a line of baggy beach shorts like the ones he’d worn during trips to California, financing this with savings from a stint working in the oil patch. That was the beginning of Westbeach. In 1986, he ended up in Vancouver — specifically, lower West Fourth Avenue. It was the kind of street he had an intuition would work: close to young people like himself, providing the stuff they wanted to shop for. From the start, he wasn’t just a clothing manufacturer but a symbol of the lifestyle and sports his clothing evoked. He didn’t have money for marketing, so he made himself the spokesman for the emerging surfing and skating cultures. He started a snowboarding competition in Whistler and got himself quoted extensively.
In 1997, Wilson sold Westbeach for $15 million. Within a year, after taking yoga classes to develop flexibility, he latched on to the idea of making attractive clothing for women who did yoga — or who wanted to look as though they did. To put it modestly, the company took off. He sold 48 percent to investors in 2005 and took Lululemon public in 2007 in order to expand into the U.S. Five years later, he stepped down as chief innovation and branding officer but stayed on as a director and chairman of the board. Until now.
One focus for Chip 2.0 is to save Vancouver from itself. He’s seen other cities squander their natural assets. In his view, we’re in danger of doing the same. His role, then, is twofold. One is to lead us to success. He wants to start an education program in the Downtown Eastside so that people there can learn about the psychology of success and the Landmark Forum ideas he says he has used to make himself and everyone who works for him successful. Wilson talks frequently about how much damage he’s done to himself and his business, the result of being brought up in a family that never talked about money or success. Landmark, and motivational types like Brian Tracy and Richard Covey who champion the psychology of achievement, have helped him think twice about doing things that are too risky, too poorly planned. He thinks there are people, even in the depths of Vancouver’s direst neighbourhood, who might be ready to follow that same path. He’d like to set up an open classroom there, “where people can come in anytime they want and sit down and listen to headphones about the psychology of being successful — why people are and why they aren’t. And really so much of that comes from people recognizing that something happened in their childhood that wasn’t great, it’s not their fault, and they have the possibility of choosing another path.”
The second is to help from behind the scenes. “I’m not a politician. Where I’m heading in the future is to work with people in government to show them what they can’t see.” To share that perspective, he drove the general manager of Vancouver’s parks, Malcolm Bromley, around for a day showing him all the things that are just wrong: the Cactus Club at the foot of Denman Street that blocks the view; the Coca-Cola-branded umbrellas and machines littering beach concessions — offensive to him as a businessman. “These people would pay two or three thousand dollars a year to put up an umbrella there, but we’re giving to the concession and the concession’s putting it up because they don’t have any money. But what does that Coca-Cola sign really do to the brand of Vancouver? It’s the greenest city in the world, it’s gorgeous. We don’t need to prostitute it with advertising.”
He’s a huge fan of Gregor Robertson, seeing in him the kind of visionary who can understand both business and environmentalism and who appreciates how Vancouver can benefit from combining the two. “It’s kind of a mutual-admiration society. I back everything that he’s doing. To have a mayor that’s got a huge vision and actually makes it happen, someone who can see into the future and really do what is best for the city, for the people, for the long run, is very, very rare.” He likes the mayor so much, he plans to support him financially in the coming election campaign, just as he did another politician he admires: Premier Christy Clark.
He also likes real estate. “I guess it’s the Duddy Kravitz in me. It’s there, it’s tangible, I can see it. Everything else seems to be this piece of paper — something in the cloud in the middle of nowhere.” Unlike so many others in this city, though, he has no interest in building condos. Instead, his purchases are a bet on the future retail and small-business life of different areas. After three decades of basing his work life in Kits, he has moved to a building he bought in Gastown, and has bought another one nearby that he’s getting developer Robert Fung to renovate. He plans to turn that into offices for Vancouver’s high-tech industry. With the first $300 million of his real-estate buys in the city, he’s also acquiring chunks of property in unexpected places. A lot behind the Astoria. The General Paint building on Venables. An office building at Seventh and Burrard that, coincidentally, houses Strategic Communications, owned by Bob Penner, a key member of the mayor’s inner circle. Two big buildings in the 800 block of East Hastings. Another on Main.
He’s betting that as downtown expands it’s going to leapfrog the Downtown Eastside and continue along Hastings. He believes the streets he’s buying around are like West Fourth in the ’80s, places where young people will live and shop.
My whole life has been retail, so I think my expertise is really looking at areas to say, ‘In six years, this street is going to be really good.’ I feel it. There’s nothing there and all of a sudden, that becomes the centre.”
They’re not the acquisitions of a businessman seeking staid investments or universal acclaim. “Almost everything in my life that I’ve done could never have been proven. Everything I’ve ever done, most people have told me I was crazy. That’s what it is to be an entrepreneur, a trend-type person.” He’s gambling, anteing up to prove that he still has a gut for trends, that he can still feel the street.
But time is pressing in. This big guy, the swimmer, the former Ironman competitor, the surfer and snowboarder — who just turned 59, has five strapping boys and plans for 25 grandkids by 2040 — has scapular muscular dystrophy. He doesn’t talk about it much, though rumours have been percolating. The first signs of the disease, a genetic condition, started to appear about 20 years ago. Slowly, the muscles in his shoulders, his arms, across his chest and around the back to his shoulder blades are degenerating. People who know the condition can see it in the way his shoulders slope. He can’t lift his hands much above his head. He expects that he won’t be able to drive within a decade.
So he focuses on the important stuff. Almost every day starts with the athletic thing he still can do, charging up the Grouse Grind with whomever he can drag along, slowing his normal pace (53 minutes) for his company. Anyone who wants to do business is required to go along. It takes about three hours, with the driving, the climb, and the gondola trip back down. Then he has lunch with his younger boys from school and later picks them up. And he thinks about how to get out of what isn’t so useful anymore so he can do what he really wants to.
And then? “Well, of course, I’m going to die,” he says. And laughs.