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Retailer Karen Delaney-Wolverton brought Lush to Vancouver 20 years ago and ended up with 236 North American stores

Karen Delaney-Wolverton enjoys getting naked for work—whether wearing only an apron to serve customers in a campaign against unnecessary packaging or doused in red paint, wearing just underwear, at a seal hunt protest outside one of the Lush stores she owns with financier husband Mark Wolverton.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff where our kids look at us and say, ‘Oh my god,’” says the mother of two teenagers, burying her head in her hands. “But you know what? You have one life and I’m going to live it large.” 

This month marks 20 years since the launch of the fresh handmade natural cosmetics line in North America; headquartered in Vancouver, the 236 Canadian and U.S. Lush stores raked in $409 million in sales for the fiscal year ending June 2015. Delaney-Wolverton recalls how one whiff of Lush while visiting London in 1995 changed the couple’s career path forever.

“There was a huge line-up down the block—and nobody really knew what it was: cheese, bread, cake?” she says, unleashing an arsenal of Lush products during a recent lunch at Giardino. “I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store. It was the vibrant colour and smell, all surrounded by this energy. My house is a temple to it now.”

It took a few months, however, to convince Lush’s British founders to let them have the North American licence. Initially, explains the self-confessed “go-getter,” the founders weren’t interested in North America, preferring to stick with mom-and-pop stores. “But we kept making trips over to the U.K. until finally they were like ‘OK, you can have North America, just go home,’” says Delaney-Wolverton, who has also modelled for swimsuit maker UjENA for three decades. “We just knew that it would do so well in Vancouver, which is obviously such a natural, outdoorsy place.”

With an initial $350,000 investment, the couple planned on opening only a few shops in Canada, with Delaney-Wolverton running the first one on Denman Street, launched in April 1996. “It wasn’t going to be a huge thing,” says the 51-year-old West Vancouver resident, pecking at beef carpaccio and burrata. “It was just my baby. I loved being there; sweeping floors, filling counters... It was so much fun.”

Buoyed by its success, however, she says that they just couldn’t stop (today’s North American employee count is 5,000): “The profits we made went into another shop, and another. We didn’t pull any dividends out; we just kept putting them in.” The couple started manufacturing the entire product line in Vancouver in 1996, adding manufacturing capacity in Toronto two years later.

Echoing a peripatetic childhood (born in Detroit to Canadian parents, Delaney-Wolverton moved to Cape Breton, then the Okanagan, as a teenager), she is still as committed to travelling as to shopping. In charge of identifying areas in which to open new stores—another 17 are launching this year including Alabama, New York and North Carolina—she heads to International Council of Shopping Centers conventions in Las Vegas, New York and Whistler as well as countries such as Kenya, Guatemala and Morocco to help with Lush’s charity partners.

The couple met while he was working at his eponymous securities’ firm (Wolverton Securities Ltd.) and she as a broker assistant on the Vancouver Stock Exchange—with Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon Ltd., Jones, Gable & Company Ltd. and Yorkton Securities Inc.—in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “I had recently lost my job and Mark was like, ‘Well, Lush could be your new thing.’ We’ve been lucky, though, because he never thought he would be leaving the family-run business to sell soap.” 

THREE THINGS ABOUT... KAREN DELANEY-WOLVERTON

lush.jpg1. She still hankers after a “LUSH” licence plate, which ICBC has refused to issue because of the name’s alternate association with drink.
2. To celebrate her 50th birthday last year, she and Wolverton climbed Mount Kilimanjaro dressed as “Lush superheroes.”
3. Delaney-Wolverton bakes every day–everything from banana bread to cookies. “I feel compelled to; I need a second oven, really.”