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Who Might Succeed Christine Day at Lululemon?

With three other c-level spots already vacant, insiders are uncertain of the brand’s direction and wonder who might be able to fill her formidable shoes.

Who will replace Christine Day is one of retailing’s hottest questions.

This story first appeared in the June 19, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

News of the abrupt departure of the dynamic Lululemon chief executive officer pulled the retailer’s stock down from $82.28 to $67.85 June 11. The company’s stock still hasn’t recovered, as shares closed at $65.42 Tuesday.

With three other c-level spots already vacant — senior vice president of logistics, executive vice president of design and executive vice president of merchandising — insiders are uncertain of the brand’s direction and wonder who might be able to fill Day’s formidable shoes.

“Not many people can,” said Sam Poser, a retail analyst at Stern Agee. “Skill set and culture will be an extremely big challenge. It would be great if they can find a Nike person who could do it, but it’s unlikely because Lululemon is more of a retail business. I think Lululemon has more in common with Nordstrom than Nike or Under Armour.”

According to Poser, the best candidate would come from a brand with an almost cultlike following and a strong retail presence, such as Apple, Nordstrom Inc., J. Crew Group or an LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton brand.

Coach Inc. president and chief operating officer Jerry Stritzke, who serves as a Lululemon board member, has emerged as a leading candidate for Day’s job, according to many observers.

In the months leading up to Day’s unexpected departure decision, Lululemon recalled a hefty shipment of black yoga pants deemed too sheer — a mistake that would not only cost the company an estimated $67 million in lost sales, but also chief product officer Sheree Waterson her job in April.

Sources told WWD that when the yoga-inspired firm experienced those sourcing problems, Stritzke reached out to play a meaningful role in correcting Lululemon’s sourcing woes.

Up until then, the Vancouver-based maker of fashionable activewear had enjoyed a string of positive headlines, a relatively low profile and strong financial results. Despite the yoga pant recall, Lululemon ended fiscal 2012 with a 46.7 percent gain in net income to $271.4 million, or $1.85 a diluted share, on a 37 percent jump in annual revenue to $1.37 billion.

“If Stritzke is sitting on the board and has a somewhat relevant background, they may view him as the next leader,” said Howard Gross, managing director of executive search firm Boyden.

Lew Frankfort, Coach’s longtime ceo, will retire in January but remain executive chairman. The company chose president and chief commercial officer Victor Luis to succeed him, “passing over” Stritzke, a source close to Coach said, adding, “It makes sense.”

Like Day, Stritzke has an operational and managerial background, but he lacks retail experience, one source said, pointing to his colleague Michael Tucci, president of Coach North America, as another viable candidate.

Tucci, a classic retail and merchandising specialist, may have a different background from Day, but he shares her “dynamic” nature, the source offered, but added there’s some “sensitivity to having a woman” in the big job.

Potential female candidates could include Victoria’s Secret ceo and president Sharon Turney, former Bath & Body Works ceo Diane Neal, former Avon Products president and current ceo of Outback Steakhouse Elizabeth Smith and Anne Martin-Vachon, chief merchandising officer at HSN.

HSN ceo Mindy Grossman, a name that is perennially floated, would be a great example of what Lululemon could be looking for, a source said, adding the same for Glen Senk, ceo of David Yurman, although it is unlikely either would take it.

Saks Inc. president and chief merchandising officer Ron Frasch, Judith Ripka president Charles Jayson, Bath & Body Works ceo Nicholas Coe and Urban Outfitters Group ceo Tedford Marlow were all floated as possibilities, but may be long shots.

“They have to move very fast [to replace Day]. These things are process-laden. This is a three-month event,” said Les Berglass, founder and chairman of Berglass + Associates, who noted that hiring a head merchant will take another six months to a year.

In-house talent does not appear to be promotable, he said, adding that the ideal candidate needs to be a leader.

“The ceo is no longer the lead violinist in a company. It’s the orchestra leader,” Berglass said. “You need a true general manager who bridges the world of performance and fashion.”

That aside, what plagued most experts wasn’t who will become ceo, it was why did Day, whom many credit as the visionary of the brand, decide to leave Lululemon so suddenly.

“This reminds me of when Mickey Drexler left the Gap. What you have is a precipitous series of events,” one source said. “I can’t picture the board firing Day. There’s a mystery in there. There was probably a contentious argument between her and the board. She made a lot of money and probably said, ‘I don’t need this.’”

RBC Capital Markets analyst Howard Tubin wondered if Day was asked to leave, following the black-pant fiasco.

“It’s just too close to an issue to remove it from the reason why she’s leaving,” he noted.

A former Starbucks executive, Day won’t likely be unemployed for long, as she had emerged as one of the industry’s brightest ceo’s and had been largely regarded as the chief architect of Lululemon’s success.

While Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. is looking for a ceo, Day might land back in consumer products at Starbucks or Apple, as Ron Johnson’s old gig as retail chief is still vacant, experts mused. Others surmised that Day could go to J. Crew or return to the activewear world, running Gap Inc.’s Athleta brand, or the women’s businesses of rivals such as Nike or Adidas.

“Just about anything’s open to her,” said Elaine Hughes, founder and ceo of search firm E.A. Hughes, who noted that she could take a top job at one of VF Corp.’s lifestyle brands or even go to J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

“She could be a breath of fresh air at Penney’s, but she’d be wise to look under the covers first,” Hughes said.