Saxx Underwear CEO Wendy Bennison is having the time of her life.
The seasoned retail executive said she learned long ago that the most enjoyable times in business are when a company is rapidly growing.
Past stints as chief operating officer at Mark’s, president of Roots and president at Kit and Ace were also in fast-growing businesses, but the expansion at those companies pales compared with that of the men’s underwear brand Saxx.
Its sales, in the tens of millions of dollars, have climbed 14-fold since 2013, according to Bennison.
Kit and Ace, financed by Lululemon Athletica Inc. founder and billionaire Chip Wilson and his family, initially grew much faster, given that it sprang up with 700 employees and more than 60 stores around the world in a little less than two years.
Bennison, however, joined Kit and Ace around the time the company had its peak number of stores, so her stint there did not bring the thrill of growth that she expected when she joined in May 2016.
Instead, she oversaw what she called the curious strategy of “getting smaller in order to get bigger.”
Four months after she joined Kit and Ace, in September 2016, she let go 70 staff, but the executive team’s goal at the time continued to be to expand rapidly, she said.
“The business just hired too many people too quickly and way ahead of when it was ready to hire those people,” she told Business in Vancouver from a boardroom at Saxx’s West 5th Avenue headquarters.
Sales at Kit and Ace’s international stores failed to meet expectations, and in April 2017 the company announced plans to close all stores outside Canada and let go an additional 200 employees.
The problem with Kit and Ace’s growth strategy, according to Bennison, is that Kit and Ace “grew the business before they had a product that worked.”
The April 2017 layoffs and store closures were an unmistakable sign that Kit and Ace had given up on a rapid-growth strategy, so Bennison triggered what she called an “exit” clause in her contract.
“When I made the decision to exit Kit and Ace, I said to the founders that what they wanted that business to become was not what they hired me to do,” she said. “I said, ‘You know what? You didn’t hire me, and you don’t want to pay me what you’re paying me, to run a 30-person company and a nine-store chain.”
(Image: Kit and Ace has since moved from this headquarters in Mount Pleasant | Chung Chow)
The native of Oakville, Ontario, who lived her entire life in the Greater Toronto area until 2012, had originally thought that she would give Vancouver a chance to be her new home for five years.
Being out of a job only one year into that five-year stint, she was reluctantly preparing to return to Toronto in May 2016. Then she caught wind that Saxx was hiring. A friend of hers knew Saxx’s chairman, Terry Holland, and arranged a meeting, according to Holland.
“It was fortuitous,” he told BIV.
“She had just popped loose from Kit and Ace, and a friend, an industrial psychologist, who I use regularly, came to me and said, ‘You were talking about needing an upgrade at the CEO level; you’ve got to hire this woman.’ She came with the right psychology but also a track record of success and building strong teams.”
Holland said he likes what she has done so far at Saxx and is excited about her plans to expand the company’s wholesale network into the U.S., which already accounts for about half of the company’s sales.
Her marketing strategy involves the study of e-commerce data, which shows where the company’s underwear is shipped, and psychographic analyses of target shoppers and of various neighbourhoods within desirable U.S. metropolitan areas.
Gaining brand recognition through targeted demographics is a challenging task but it’s a challenge to which Bennison brings a lifetime of experience in retail.
Bennison has worked in retail sales since she graduated from high school and got a job at a Toronto location of the Vancouver-based chain Bootlegger. In the 1980s, when she was in her early 20s, she got involved in that company’s management training program. She quickly climbed the ladder, from store manager to district manager and then senior executive positions at sister brands such as Young Canada and Cleo, which were also owned by Comark. By 1999, however, she had grown restless. It seemed to her that Comark was not investing sufficiently in fast growth for those brands.
Her yearning to be in a fast-growing company, and one that offered power-centre retail experience instead of simply mall-store experience, led her to what was then Mark’s Work Wearhouse.
Bennison became part of a leadership team that quadrupled the company’s sales by the time she left the venture in 2012.
She was also part of the team that transitioned Mark’s Work Warehouse – a retail brand that focused on everything from boots to durable shirts and pants for male labourers – into the brand Mark’s, which has a womenswear division and a much wider assortment of clothes for men.
“She has exceptionally strong leadership,” said Paul Wilson, who was Mark’s president at the time and would later hire Bennison at Kit and Ace. “She’s good at rallying a team of people around a single business goal or objective and exceptionally strong at building a business around a brand.”
Before she would get to Kit and Ace, however, she would put those skills to work at Roots.
“Sometimes timing works,” she said. “I feel like I am a stupidly lucky person. I ended up getting introduced to the founders of Roots, who happened to be at that point thinking that it was time for them to start to think of their exit strategy.”
She left such a strong first impression on Roots founders Don Green and Michael Budman that they hired her to be COO, and, soon afterward, president.
Within three years, deep-pocketed private investment fund Searchlight Capital Partners bought a commanding stake in the company. While Bennison said Searchlight offered her the CEO position in April 2016, she declined so she could live out her dream of relocating to the West Coast and starting a new chapter in her life.
Her two daughters were in their 20s, and Bennison was single and keen to live in Vancouver, where she had often visited and thought about living.
“I’m a huge hiker,” she said. “I recently started taking rowing lessons at the Vancouver Rowing Club. That’s my new Vancouver sport as I live near there [in Coal Harbour.]”•