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Wilson’s going-private idea may be Lululemon’s best option

Let's be clear: Chip Wilson has become a nuisance. He's a major distraction for the management of the company he founded, but no longer runs. He's a risky wild card for the future of the yoga-wear retailer, where he's still the biggest shareholder and is very publicly displeased. He's an albatross around the neck of a stock that has enough problems without him.

But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Mr. Wilson, coming off his recent failure to have Lululemon's chairman (his successor) ousted, is reportedly talking with investment bankers about options ranging from buying out his fellow shareholders and taking the company private, to selling his 27-per-cent stake in the Vancouver-based company.

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It looks like he's prepared to make this an "either they go or I go" showdown – and either way, the market seems good with it. News of Mr. Wilson's latest machinations sent Lululemon's stock up more than 4 per cent Monday morning, to its highest level since before the company issued an ugly, stock-gutting 2014 earnings outlook on June 12.

Frankly, both extremes in Mr. Wilson's arsenal could be considered positives for the company's other investors, whose shares have lost half their value over the past year amid the quagmire of operational blunders, management departures and boardroom squabbles. Having Mr. Wilson sell out and walk away would remove a major threat to stability and progress hanging over the company and its stock. Having him launch a private-equity-backed takeover would almost certainly deliver an offer price at a considerable premium over the shares' current value.

But the going-private buyout option is one that strikes at what Mr. Wilson believes has gone wrong at Lululemon: Long-term strategy is being sacrificed in favour of short-term performance. He has said, loudly and often, that the company needs to return its focus to its roots of product quality and innovation, rather than getting wrapped up in turning around its returns in the near term.

He has a point. The erosion of the company's financial and stock performance are symptoms of its woes, not the root cause. At the heart of Lululemon's problems has been some serious blows to its brand image, which is the very foundation on which the business was built. Admittedly, Mr. Wilson himself contributed to this image problem; but that doesn't change the fact that recovering and maintaining the company's reputation for top-notch products will be critical to its long-term health.

Yet the stock market has surely become a powerful force against the kind of patience that this will require. The market is notoriously near-sighted, even more so with companies such as Lululemon that have built their investor popularity (and, hence, stock value) on breakneck growth. All you have to do is look at the most recent flight from the stock – a 16-per-cent nosedive driven by Lululemon's outlook for what amounts to the next nine months of sales and profits – to witness the immense pressure on management to fix the financial deterioration in short order. Investors clearly aren't prepared to stick around for a long-term revitalization of Lululemon's brand; their money is on big profits and rapid growth.

A privately held Lululemon would have none of that public-market pressure. It would be able to focus its resources on rebuilding its brand and restoring its value, to emerge better-equipped for a new phase of its development as a retailer, without being thrown off course by the need to deliver numbers every quarter. It may not be the only route to turning around Lululemon's fortunes, but it may prove the quickest and most painless.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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