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People walk past a store of yogawear retailer Lululemon Athletica in downtown Vancouver June 11, 2014. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)
People walk past a store of yogawear retailer Lululemon Athletica in downtown Vancouver June 11, 2014. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)

Founder poised for battle at Lululemon, shares jump Add to ...

The founder of Lululemon Athletica Inc. is preparing to go back into battle with the yoga-wear retailer as it struggles to recover from a string of setbacks.

Chip Wilson is talking with bankers at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in considering a host of options, including teaming with a private-equity firm to mount a buyout or selling his holdings in the company, a source familiar with the situation said Sunday.

“Goldman has been advising,” the source said. “Chip is still deciding the route he plans to take. Right now we’ve been focused on getting the team solidified.”

Mr. Wilson is getting advice from Goldman and also mulling working with some other banks, the source said. He hasn’t signed a deal with Goldman or any other financial institution yet, the person said.

Lululemon shares were up about 5.2 per cent two hours before the Nasdaq open on Monday.

Mr. Wilson’s latest moves signal he’s not going away as a thorn in the side of Vancouver-based Lululemon.

With about a 28-per-cent stake in the company, Mr. Wilson tried unsuccessfully almost two weeks ago to remove two members from the board of directors, including the chairman who recently replaced him in that position.

A Lululemon spokesman said the board and management team “are focused on further strengthening the company’s product engine and relentlessly innovating to drive global expansion.”

Mr. Wilson, who still sits on the board, says he wants the company to focus more on long-term objectives and product innovation rather than just short-term results.

In his bid to get the board to focus more on long-term objectives and product innovation rather than just short-term results, his strategizing threatens to derail the retailer’s efforts to return it to its glory days as a stock-market darling.

As Faye Landes, retail analyst at Cowen and Co. in New York, asked in a recent note: “How can the company assure investors that Chip Wilson’s ‘activism’ won’t be a distraction?”

Besides the boardroom brawl, Lululemon is also grappling with mounting competition, senior staff departures and missteps. They include a big product recall last year because the retailer’s signature black pants were too sheer, other quality issues and comments by Mr. Wilson that seemed to suggest its clothing doesn’t suit large women.

At Lululemon, there is “lots of talk of transition and fixing initiatives but no concrete plan,” Sam Poser, retail analyst at Sterne Agee, said earlier this month. “Inefficient share buybacks will not distract investors from company turmoil.”

Mr. Wilson, in his attempt to refocus the retailer on product and innovation, is talking to Goldman Sachs about his options, the source said. “But we haven’t signed a deal with Goldman Sachs yet … There’s no signed deal with any financial institution … Nothing has been finalized.”

Financial firms have been trying to interest Mr. Wilson in hiring them to help him bring change to the company, industry sources have said, while observers have said it could be risky to take the company private again at a hefty premium.

Taking the company private again could be risky, requiring a considerable premium over its $5.85-billion (U.S.) market capitalization, observers said.

Lululemon is struggling with weak performance and a dimmed short-term outlook. Earlier this month, its executives said its sales at existing stores were slowing and the product offering was still “suboptimal.” Its stock has lost almost a third of its value this year, falling by 4 cents to $40.23 on Friday.

“Our parents are fighting and it’s awkward,” Laurent Potdevin, who took over as chief executive officer in January from Christine Day, told analysts on June 12.

Retail analyst Jennifer Black said Lululemon customers are growing impatient with the “lack of newness” and “lack of depth” among the merchandise.

“She has become frustrated, as new fashion-based merchandise gets revealed in blogs, and then it hits the e-commerce channel and it is typically gone in a matter of days or less,” she said.

The retailer is working on a singular new inventory system that is expected to be operational by mid or late 2015, she noted.

Lululemon has “much ground to make up from a technology perspective,” Ms. Black added. She said it cannot track customer purchases or number of transactions and lacks data to understand its most loyal customers and reward them accordingly. The company is building a loyalty program expected to go live some time in 2015, she said.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding Lululemon is its high turnover in senior staff. Earlier this month, it said it would start searching for a new chief financial officer because John Currie, who took that position in 2007 and helped take Lululemon public, is retiring at the end of the year to indulge his passion for skiing.

In its first quarter, Lululemon’s profit fell to $18.98-million from $47.28-million a year earlier. Revenue rose to $384.6-million from $345.8-million.

Sales at existing stores rose 1 per cent but fell 4 per cent in its bricks-and-mortar outlets where it does the vast majority of its business, and picked up 25 per cent in its online operations. Those are sales at outlets open a year or more, and are considered an important retail measure.

This story has been updated to correct Lululemon's market capitalization to $5.85 billion from $5.9 billion

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