Now it's her chance to stretch: Lululemon's next CEO spent two decades at Starbucks. Yet the top spot at the yoga-wear retailer feels quite comfortable

It was a somewhat shambling and occasionally discursive Chip Wilson who popped up at a marketing conference a month ago and started talking about growing up in the seventies: "Kinda like the women's lib kinda time."

And about how women today undervalue their ability to conceive and bear children (he said he was envious).

And about his curiosity as to whether female employees intend to have children: "I think women who are well adjusted can have that conversation."

Just as I began to lose touch with the hippie-convention-in-Goa psychedelia that adorned his speech, the founder of yoga-wear maker Lululemon Athletica Inc. made a prediction that at least made sense: "I believe the next CEO for Lululemon will be a woman."

Mr. Wilson wasn't imagining things. Already known to Mr. Wilson, but not announced until yesterday, was the confirmation of Christine Day as chief executive officer of the stretch-and-breathe lifestyle company, an appointment that takes effect June 30.

Ms. Day will serve as president and chief operating officer until that time, working alongside outgoing CEO Robert Meers who was brought in to assist the aforementioned discursive, but nevertheless visionary, Mr. Wilson in 2005.

Mr. Meers, having retired as chief executive officer of Reebok International Ltd. a decade ago, had the hard-grinding retail smarts Lululemon demanded then, expert as he was in keeping shelves stocked and inventories lean. He beats back the suggestion that he is leaving earlier than expected.

"I've been recruiting Christine for a couple of years," he says.

The market now, in the view of Mr. Wilson and apparently Mr. Meers too, is hungry for a women's company run by a woman. (Mr. Wilson predicted the company's stock will do better as a result. It hasn't yet.)

If this is truly true, both executives can give great thanks that in their new leader they have found someone who appears to be grounded in the 21st century.

The 46-year-old Ms. Day spent two decades at Starbucks Corp., looked skyward to the top job at the multibillion-dollar grande coffee shop and observed what was not within her reach. "I think the only barrier between me and the top frankly is that it was growing to be a $10-billion company and you don't get your first CEO opportunity at $10-billion," she says. "It was a very difficult choice for me to leave, but eventually the desire to fulfill my own career aspirations won out."

Ten-billion-dollar companies are always out of reach for Canadian female executives. What am I saying? Even $1-billion companies are commonly out of reach for Canadian female executives. Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner at executive recruitment firm Rosenzweig & Co., says the percentage of high-level female executives within Canada's top 100 publicly traded companies - the smallest of which reports revenues of $1.7-billion - fell to an anemic 5.8 per cent last year from an already anemic 6.9 per cent in 2006. "The numbers," he says, "are so staggeringly low." (As for CEOs in those ranks the hard number, says Mr. Rosenzweig, is ... three.)

Lululemon is smaller - the company yesterday reported annual profit of $30.8-million on revenue of $274.7-million, an 84.5-per-cent revenue increase from 2006.

But it's got personality. Ms. Day notes that the fitness wear is "not done in a style that looks like your high-school uniform."

This is true. On the other hand, Japanese women are so unused to this notion of the all-day yoga pant that the company has announced that it is closing its four stores there until the Lulu-sensibility catches wildfire in what Ms. Day calls "cities that influence" - the New Yorks, the Parises.

(Mr. Meers pushes responsibility for the premature expansion into Japan Mr. Wilson's way. "It was an old business partner of Chip's," he says of the alliance that was forged there. )

In Lululemon Ms. Day says she has personally found a fit that resonates. There are the cross-cultural applications from her time at Starbucks: Both are premium products that have excelled in their markets, Starbucks' current woes notwithstanding.

Both operate from what Ms. Day calls a "small-box" business model. (She's speaking from a real estate perspective there.)

There's the international expansion piece - Ms. Day was most recently president of Starbucks' Asia Pacific Group.

And there's the personal piece. "For me that's about really being able to live my values both personally and at work," she says.

Corporately, Lululemon has always spoken the "Friends are more important than money" language, crafted in a manifesto that asks its "guests" - aka customers - to exercise, floss, and drink lots of water.

Given the company's mantra it was predictable that the exercise question would be lobbed Ms. Day's way. "I really do like to do hatha yoga," she says, for its deep-breathing, de-stressing effects. While she wouldn't oversell herself as a competitive athlete she does like to run. And she recently took up the form of Pilates that involves something called a Reformer, which I take it is a big piece of equipment.

The value added in the appointment, Mr. Meers says, is that Ms. Day is the target customer.

"She sees what the customer needs, what the customer wants," he says. "I'd love to think I could do it, but the truth is I have to have it translated for me."

Ms. Day is a mother to three children, aged 22, 19 and 8. "We refer to him as the bonus pack," Ms. Day says of her youngest. "Buy one, get one free." Her husband is a former boat dealer. He likes mountain biking. The family has purchased a condo at Coal Harbour. You can just feel the whole lifestyle package, which is good, as it now falls to Ms. Day to effectively execute brand extensions in cycling and triathlon gear and maintain Lululemon's distinctiveness in markets dominated by bigger, tougher players.

Did Ms. Day take a second to celebrate her appointment? Says the CEO-designate: "I allowed myself to have one glass of wine and that's it."

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