Lululemon CEO Christine Day talks business values at Beedie

Oct 25, 2012

Christine Day, CEO of Lululemon Athletica, being interviewed by CKNW host Bill Good in front of a packed audience at the Beedie School of Business.

Christine Day, CEO of Lululemon Athletica, sat in front of a live audience at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business and shared her experiences as chief executive of one of Canada’s fastest growing companies, as well as the unique set of values that define the Lululemon brand.

The event was part of the Beedie School of Business’ partnership with prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW, which sees SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus play host to “The Chief Executives”, a series of live radio interviews conducted by CKNW host Bill Good, profiling some of the country’s top executives.

Good opened the interview by enquiring about Day’s career path, and whether she knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. Day revealed that she had initially been intent on pursuing a career as an elementary school teacher, but had been told by a counselor that she should reevaluate her career goals. Discouraged by what she perceived as rejection, Day spent the next year searching for a subject to major in, before discovering her passion for business – and since then has never looked back.

Day shies away from publicity, and commented that it has taken her time to become accustomed to her role as a public figure. Good remarked at one point that it took a great deal of persuasion on CKNW’s part to entice Day to appear on the show. Day then revealed that she finally decided to appear when she discovered that the interview would take place at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. “I love talking to students, and that’s what finally got me here – when I found out you had a room full of students,” she said.

Day then spoke about her career at Starbucks, where she spent 20 years in a variety of positions before finally becoming president of the Asia Pacific Group of Starbucks Coffee International. She described the most important lesson she learned there as people needing to feel a sense of belonging towards the company and towards the company’s vision in order for them to produce their best work.

“We used to say that we are in the business of serving people coffee, but that people don’t just come in to get coffee, they come in to find a friend,” she explained. “If there is a difference between what your values are and how a company operates then you will always hold something back. If what you do is purpose-led and full of passion then you will do your best work.”

With Day’s final position at Starbucks requiring her to spend some 240 days of the year flying between Canada and Asia, she opted to take a year out to spend time with her family. It was during this period that Lululemon founder and former CEO Dennis “Chip” Wilson contacted her and offered her the position of CEO with the company.

Good asked Day why she thought she had been offered the position and what she brought to the company. Day replied that she brought values and a culture-based leadership, as well as the ability to create a sense of teamwork and the knowledge of how to strategically run a brand and deliver great financial results. Day also explained that the position was an opportunity for her to learn about the supply chain and the world of apparel, although she joked that the company did not yet trust her to make any purchases.

Good then asked how Day maintains the culture of a company which markets itself as consumer-friendly, but that is also a publicly-listed company at the same time. Day explained that she utilizes a lot of the experience she gained during her time at Starbucks, but that this involves not repeating the mistakes she witnessed during her time there as well as employing the strategies that worked.

Day spoke at length throughout the interview about the importance of the company’s values and her role as CEO in setting the tone of the company. She talked about how the company grants its store managers a tremendous amount of autonomy, giving them complete responsibility for engaging with their local communities and decorating their stores individually. As CEO, she places a great deal of trust in her store managers to hold the company values and express them to the local community.

Day also revealed her belief that the role of a CEO is that of a storyteller. “As a leader, you are trying to convince other people about your story,” she said. “The ability to be a good storyteller is so important, as is getting people to share in your stories. Leadership is telling stories and bringing people into your purpose and vision in order to get them to deliver.”

When questioned about Lululemon’s sustainability policies, Day described how the company does not operate a sustainability program, but that instead it is imbedded in every employee’s job. In addition to initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint and water usage, she gave an example of how the company would never become involved in paying large sums to a spokesperson to endorse their product.

Throughout the interview Day fielded questions from the audience, offering advice on what a new start-up can do to build a brand representing a lifestyle choice; how to grow a company while avoiding the negative attitudes some consumers can bear towards large organizations; her faith in authentic marketing tactics; and what action they would take if they decide an employee does not match the company values.

In closing, Day spoke of her reluctance to take sole credit for the performance of the company. “I have a great team and I want to make sure that the whole team gets credit for things going well,” she said. “I may lead the team, but that is a privilege and I believe in the whole. Chip founded it all and he is a master of creating paradoxes. He brought beauty to athletic wear and brought the individual into team in a beautiful way.”

The next CEO to be interviewed as part of the Chief Executives Series will be Jacqui Cohen, CEO of Army & Navy.

For more information about the CKNW Chief Executives Series at the Beedie School of Business, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/events/

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