From leadership lessons learned while serving in the U.S. Army to creating iconic brand campaigns for big companies, former Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh shared many career stories at last week’s Dean’s Speaker Series, co-sponsored by the Center for Responsible Business.
Bergh, who recently retired, is known as a “brand guy,” starting his career as a brand assistant at Procter & Gamble.
“My career kind of took off from there,” he said.
Bergh discussed his work on brands—including Folgers Coffee’s “Best part is waking up is Folgers in your cup” campaign and JIF Peanut Butter’s “Choosy moms and dads choose JIF” campaign.
“The challenge of marketing is: How do you get a consumer to fall in love with your brand?” he said.
After becoming president & CEO at Levi’s in 2011, Bergh led the company’s dramatic turnaround, returning the brand to the center of the culture.
Bergh said his plan to revive Levi’s was simple. “I’m a brand guy. I knew nothing about apparel. I didn’t know much about retail either. But I grew up in Levi’s. I can remember my first date or first kiss, I was wearing Levi’s. My whole thesis was (to make) the brand the way it was when I was a kid. I had to have Levi’s to go to seventh grade. I was not gonna be that kid to show up in middle school not wearing Levi’s.”
Watch the video here:
Read the full transcript:
– Good afternoon, everybody. I’m Ann Harrison. I’m the dean at the Haas School of Business. Welcome to today’s Dean’s Speaker Series. We are so lucky today to have Chip Bergh joining us. So exciting. When we think of Chip, I think personally of brands, big brands: Levi, Swiffer, Gillette, Old Spice. Chip spent his whole career in brand leadership from his first job out of the Army, as a brand assistant at Procter & Gamble, all the way to president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Company. And with a few stops in between, Chip took on the challenge of reinvigorating the Levi’s brand in 2011. Now, Levi’s has a global footprint of 3,200 stores and net revenues way over $6 billion. Chip has consistently questioned the status quo, one of our defining leadership principles, with his values-based leadership, and one of those values is to walk the walk on sustainability. It’s so important for us tonight to be able to learn from someone whose everyday work has focused on sustainability goals, goals related to issues of climate, issues of consumption, and community. Now, we actually have a very special connection to Levi Strauss & Company that many of you in the room may not know about. In 1897, Levi Strauss helped establish UC Berkeley’s very first scholarships. One hundred and twenty-seven years later, the Levi Strauss Scholars Program continues to operate at UC Berkeley, and it provides financial security for students with limited resources and big dreams. But actually, Haas and Levi Strauss have even closer ties than that. Our namesake, the namesake for the Haas School, Walter A. Haas, he started working at the small dry goods firm in 1919, marketed to teens after realizing blue jeans were the ultimate in cool, and he retired as chairman of the company in 1970. So I’m sure that Chip has a lot to say about this history and how it connects to the company’s DNA and the amazing denim legacy that he carried forward and has built on so incredibly successfully. I also should note that Chip just retired this week, and we’re already working hard to recruit him here to becoming a professor at Haas, and that is no joke. Congratulations on a truly meaningful career and all the successes still to come. Thank you, Chip, for joining us today to teach us everything that you have learned along the way. Now, some quick housekeeping. You should all have a note card on your seat. If you have a question right now or anytime during the event, please write it on the card, and be sure to include your name and which program that you’re in. My colleagues over here will be collecting them throughout the event for the Q&A portion after the fireside chat. And since Chip has recently retired, we’re asking that you focus your questions on his career and not the future of Levi’s and now. And now I’m going to—
– About the future is great.
– OK, and now, I’m going to turn it over to Manu Singh and Chris Burke, and they are students, are MBA students and they will moderate today’s discussion. Thank you.
– Thank you, Dean, for the introduction and welcome, Chip to the Dean’s Speaker Series. All of us are really, really excited. Who we have in the audience are MBA folks. We have evening and weekend program folks, also MBA. We have students from the wider UC Berkeley community. We have alumni of Haas as well. And then everybody has their notebooks out, and they’re here to learn from your inspiring journey, so thank you for being here. My first question is to you: You’ve just retired, and how are you feeling?
– Well, first of all, let me say, thank you very much for the warm welcome and for the very, very kind introduction. Yeah, my last official day as president and CEO was on Sunday, and so the 49ers gave me the best gift possible. We’re going to the Super Bowl, right? So yeah, Monday morning was a really weird feeling, waking up and not going into work, and I’m still adjusting to it. Nobody’s sending me emails anymore. But I’ve got a lot of options of different and interesting things that I might do as I go forward. I feel too young. I’m 66, but I feel too young to just hang it up completely. I want to do something where I’m going to have an impact. And as the dean knows, teaching is actually something that is pretty high on my list. So, who knows? Maybe you’ll see me around campus.
– Yes, woo!
– But from the week after I graduated from undergraduate school, I have gone to work every day. And to wake up that first morning knowing I don’t have to go into the office, it was weird. And it’s going to take some time to adjust to it. I’ve had somebody tell me, you need to give yourself a couple of months to really decompress and detox. The CEO job, it is a high octane 24/7, always on. You never know when you’re going to get the call in the middle of the night or something. And it’s going to take a while, I think, to decompress. And then, with a clearer mind, I will decide where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do next. But it will be something.
– So, as a Lions fan, I can’t express the same amount of optimism you have right now. But just to get us started—
– Sorry about what happened there.
– I don’t want to talk about it. Taking us all the way back, you served in the military, for what? A little over four years? Can you just talk about how that shaped both who you are and your views on leadership moving forward into your career?
– Sure. Yeah, so I’ll take you back to when I went to college. I graduated from high school in 1975, little history lesson. So I graduated in June of 1975. In April of 1975, the Vietnam War ended. So the furthest thing from my mind when I went to college was enrolling in ROTC. But somebody dangled a smart rising sophomore, who was in ROTC, dangled this idea that, if you sign up for ROTC and you stay for a week, you get to keep the boots. So I signed up for ROTC, and it turns out, I loved it. And then, six months in, the commander of the ROTC unit said, “Why don’t you apply for a scholarship?” And I was doing three jobs and trying to bailing wax and string trying to get my way through college. And I was like, he said, “It’ll pay for all your tuition, room and board, plus a monthly stipend of 100 bucks a month,” which back then, was a lot of money. I was like, “I’m in, I’ll apply.” And three months later, I got it. So then, all of a sudden, the military, Uncle Sam was paying for college, and I had this opportunity to go into the Army, and it was life changing for me. One of the life-changing moves, that I looked back on my life and said, “My life would be totally different if I had not done that.” Many people have accused me, it’s still looking like I’m in the Army, but it made me who I am as a leader. So, after I graduated from college, my unit was in West Germany, OK? Outside of Frankfurt, West Germany. When there was still an East Germany. My unit’s mission was to be kind of the first line of defense. I was in an air defense unit, first line of defense. When the Russian hoards came across to fold the gap in World War III, we were going to be the first line of defense. I had a platoon, my first assignment, I was a platoon leader, a second lieutenant, 22 years old, right out of college. My platoon sergeant, 18-year-Army veteran. My four squad leaders who had been in the military anywhere from about four to eight years, all had to salute me and call me sir. And it grew me up really, really fast. I learned everything about leadership in the military, and leadership has changed over the years, but it really made me who I am as a leader. And I learned never to ask a soldier to do anything that you yourself wouldn’t do. I’ve learned really the essence of what now is called servant leadership, taking care of your people. You take care of your people, they’re going to take care of you. But I learned so much. And it all applied to business too, later on. But I had the opportunity to make the military my career. I had a “regular Army commission,” which is the same commission that West Point graduates graduate with, even though I went to a “real school.” Sorry about that if there are any West Pointers in here. But I decided I really wanted to go to a place where it was a meritocracy, where if you performed really well, you moved ahead quicker. And that was not really the military until after about 18 years. And then maybe the better performers start to separate, so. But it was life-changing. Very big.
– Yeah, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And you then joined P&G after your military experience, right? And then you rose in the rank there from a brand manager?
– Brand assistant.
– Brand assistant. All the way to the group president, right? And so, I’m curious, and then after that, you made the decision to move to Levi’s. As I see, these two sectors are very different. One is consumer goods, the other is apparel, different demand, different supply chain, different everything. So I’m curious, why did you make that kind of move?
– OK, well, so a couple of things. There were probably several questions in that question, but yeah, when I left the military, I graduated undergrad. I went to Lafayette College, relatively small liberal arts school in Easton, Pennsylvania. Any Lafayette grads here? Didn’t think so. Bummed me out. I was an international affairs major, so I didn’t really have any practical business experience or anything like that. But one of the things that four plus years in the military taught me was it taught me a lot about myself. I learned a lot about myself and what kind of environment I would thrive in, what kind of environment where I could be really successful. I knew myself as a leader and how I could make things happen through other people. And so, when I decided to leave the military, I looked at a wide range of different types of career opportunities and different companies. And at the end of the day, I felt that brand management at P&G really felt like the best fit for me. Back in the day, they used to describe brand management as like, mini general manager. I still remember the picture on the recruiting brochure where the brand manager was in the center and then all of the other functions were around it. And it was like a mini general manager role. And that’s the way they pitched it to young aspiring people like me and some of you. And that felt like a really, really good thing. And then, when I interviewed there, I just really liked the people, and I felt like it was an environment where I could be really successful. And it turned out, that’s how it played out. I mean, I spent 28 years at P&G. I actually technically retired from P&G. I went to work the next week when I joined Levi’s, but I had been there long enough that I technically retired. And I had an amazing career. I started as a brand assistant, and over the course of 28 years, I rose through the ranks of brand management. So brand assistant, it was a very linear career path, but brand assistant, assistant brand manager, brand manager. I started in a very obscure division called food service and lodging products, which was kind of the institutional division, if you will, of P&G where we sold big things of oil to restaurants, to deep fry food. We had big things of Tide laundry detergent that we sold actually to laundries and also to clean floors and restaurants. So, our customers were institutional customers. And then, after about six years, I moved over to the consumer side of the business to the retail food business. And my career kind of took off from there. I worked in the food and beverage business. I worked on brands like Folgers. “Best part is waking up is Folgers in your cup.” I worked on JIF Peanut Butter, “Choosy moms and dads choose JIF.” So, I worked at Duncan Hines. I was brand manager on Duncan Hines Baking Mix. And working in the food and beverage business as a marketer was a great place to spend my career. Because, if you think about it, the challenge of marketing is: “How do you get a consumer to fall in love with your brand?” And when you’re selling coffee, for example, the end benefit of coffee, it’s a drug, right? It’s caffeine; it wakes you up in the morning. What’s the difference between Folgers and Maxwell House? Back in the day, it’s “the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.” And that emotional advertising that kind of sucked the consumer in and created this attachment to the brand. And so, kind of growing up in food and beverage, I really learned the importance of understanding the consumer and kind of unarticulated needs and how to really emotionally connect with the consumer. And I will tell you how that played forward even on Levi’s. OK? Anyway, my career kind of continued. I was marketing director on Folgers, and I was general manager on this tiny crummy little business that we had called Hard Surface Cleaners. That sounds like fun, huh? Brands like Comet, Spic and Span, Mr. Clean, Luster Oil. Have you heard of any of these brands? OK. It was a business in the U.S. It was a $200 million business. It was breakeven, it was declining. Not fun, not strategic at all. And I had just come off of Folgers, which was like a $1.5 billion dollar business. Our marketing budget was bigger than the total size of our hard surface cleaners business. I was doing 30 pieces of advertising a year as a marketing guy. That was great fun. Come to Hard Surface Cleaners, and we’re barely making any money, and it’s not strategic to the company. And turns out, it was probably the best assignment in my career at P&G, or one of the best. The business was really challenged. And when I got there, I said to my team, “The best definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to turn this business around.” And if you think about it, all of those businesses, Comet, which is sand in a can, right? Mr. Clean, Luster Oil, these were all designed for the 1950s when mom stayed at home and cleaned the house and baked the cake, and dad went to work and came home. Honest to goodness, that was the business. And cleaning had completely changed. This was now in the 1990s, to working families. We didn’t even have hard surfaces in most of our houses. We had carpets for crying out loud, right? So, we went back and went deep on the consumer and discovered that consumers hated to clean. They wanted cleaning to be simple, quick, and fun. Like an impossible dream, right? And out of that came Swiffer.
– Thank you. I knew somebody would say that. And that is today a $2 billion global business. And it was all based on this consumer insight that people don’t want to clean like the 1950s. They have different surfaces, they have different needs in their life. And we built a new business around those needs, and it turned into a $2 billion business. Anyway, I’m taking too much time here. I haven’t even answered your question. OK, then I went, I kind of carried on in my career. I went to Asia for six years. I ran P&G’s business in Southeast Asia, which was amazing. I was based in Singapore. Interestingly enough, my youngest son and his wife are soon moving to Singapore, and he’s going to get to go back there. But it was a small business when I got out there. It was about a billion-dollar business across all these great markets from India, across to the Philippines, everything in between, and then down all the way to Australia, New Zealand. So I had some really high GDP per capita markets like Singapore. I had some really, really low GDP per capita markets like Indonesia and India and a little bit of everything in between. Incredible diversity, incredible young organization, amazing experience. And in six and a half, almost seven years, we went from a billion dollars in sales to $3 billion in sales. We were the fastest-growing business in P&G for three or four years in a row. Phenomenal experience. And then, P&G acquired Gillette. The CEO was telling me I need to go back to Cincinnati. I was like, “Nah, not so much. I’m not sure I want to go back to Cincinnati.” He called me up one day and he said, “We just acquired Gillette, how would Boston be?” And I was like, “Boston? Cincinnati, Boston be great.” And so, I was the first P&Ger dropped into Gillette when we made that acquisition. It was a $57-billion deal, biggest acquisition, still to this day in consumer packaged goods. That was an amazing experience as well, running this big. It was about a $7.5-billion business. I also had responsibility for all the other male grooming brands in the portfolio, the biggest one of which was Old Spice, which was also the troubled business that we managed to turn around the last couple of years that I was there. We used to jokingly say, “Old Spice is that fragrance your grandpa wears. Unfortunately, your grandpa is dying.” And so was the business. And so, we repositioned Old Spice. We went after Axe, and we did a really cool piece of advertising that aired just after the Super Bowl, not on the Super Bowl. Very famous ad that started with, “Hello, ladies.” And you probably know the ad that I’m talking about. It ends with, “I’m on a horse.” And that took the business to completely new heights overnight. Overnight. Then I got the call for Levi’s. And I was mid-50s at this point in time. Young daughter, two grown boys, and starting to think about what would be next. I’ve been working on the Gillette business for about seven years. And the most likely scenario is, I go back to Cincinnati and run Pampers or something else, which is a big brand, and that would’ve been fun, too, but it was kind of like, “Is that it?” You know, “Is that my career?” And it’s not like I had this burning desire. I had to go be a CEO per se, but I wanted to do something where I was going to have a legacy and make a difference. And I had been getting calls while I was at Gillette for other CEO opportunities, most of which weren’t very, very interesting. But when I got the call for Levi’s my ears perked up. The headhunter said to me on the phone, “You know, I think I’ve got something that might be interesting to you. What do you think about Levi’s?” And the words out of my mouth were, “Oh, wow.” And honestly, at that moment, I was actually in Beijing with my leadership team from Gillette at that exact moment. And if you’d asked me right then, and I had just been in a mall the prior day and had walked past a Levi’s store, and if you’d asked me, “How big is Levi’s?”, I would’ve said it was a $10 billion brand easily. ‘Cause everywhere I traveled around the world, I saw Levi’s. And I grew up on Levi’s, and I like to say everybody’s got a Levi’s story. But as I started doing my due diligence on the company, the brand was broken, the company was lost. It had not performed in well over a decade. I mentioned, I’ve got two, they’re now really grown boys. My oldest son is turning 41 this month and lives in Taiwan. My youngest son is 36 and works at Nike up in Portland. And when they were teenagers, they never wore Levi’s. It was not even in their consideration setting. My guess is, if there are some of you who were kind of early 30s, early-30s to mid-30s, it probably wasn’t in your consideration set either as a teenager. And so, the more I dug into it, the more I was like, “This is one of America’s greatest brands, one of America’s oldest companies.” We just celebrated our 171st birthday. We’re going on 171 years now. “One of America’s oldest companies, one of America’s greatest brands, one of America’s oldest brands, a brand that I loved as a kid.” And that represented the opportunity to really make a difference. And so, I decided to do it, and it’s been amazing—
– Yeah, thank you for sharing that. I think you’ve worked in brands, which you feel inspired about, right? So I guess a quick show of hands in the audience, how many of you have had a pair of Levi’s jeans? OK, OK, wow.
– That’s almost 100%. Or let’s break the other way. Who hasn’t?
– OK, there are a few.
– OK, you’re brave, you’re brave. We’re going to work on you tonight. No, but seriously, I do like to say, “Everybody’s got a Levi’s story,” and I did my due diligence before I took the job. I kind of discovered that people, I asked my friends, “Have you bought Levi’s lately?” And they, “God, I grew up in Levi’s. I can remember like my first date or first kiss, I was wearing Levi’s.” And they would say, this is back before I took the job, “But I can’t even remember the last time I bought a pair of Levi’s.” And so the opportunity to kind of—my going-in thesis was really simple. I’m a brand guy. I knew nothing about apparel. I’m a brand guy. I didn’t know much about retail, either. My whole thesis was if we could make the brand the way it was when I was a kid. I had to have Levi’s to go to seventh grade. I was not going to be that kid to show up in middle school not wearing Levi’s. Those kids got pounded by the cool kids. And so, I asked my mom to drive me about three towns over so that we could buy a pair of Levi’s for when I went to seventh grade, that’s one of my Levi’s stories. First memory. And that was the whole going-in thesis. And that has really been what we’ve done over the last 12 years. We put the brand back at the center of culture, made it cool with the kids again, and have significantly grown the business by about 50% over the last decade or so. I’m freaking these guys out ’cause I’m a storyteller, and they’re like, “Man, we’re so far behind.”
– No, we would never. No, I feel like as a brand guy, being able to hop onto a 170-year-old brand has gotta be an exciting experience. Something you want to just kind of dig your teeth right into. But can you talk a little bit about the listening tour you did about chips and beers? ‘Cause that seems like something that not every CEO is doing these days.
– Yeah, and when I got to the company, I knew there was going to be a ton of skepticism. Did I? It’s blinking. Red and green. OK, when I got to the company, I knew that there was going to be a lot of skepticism. Who is this new CEO? He has never been a CEO before. He doesn’t know anything about apparel. Doesn’t know retail. Who is this bozo? And I also came in with a huge amount of humility because I knew they were right. I didn’t know anything about apparel. I didn’t know anything about retail. And I had to come in with a huge amount of willingness to learn. And so, one of the things I did is, I sent the same six questions to the top 60 people in the company. I’m not going to remember all six off the top of my head, but “What three things do you hope I will do? What three things are you most afraid I might do? What are the three things that you think we have to keep? What three things have to change? What advice do you have for me?” Which was open-ended. And there was one more, and I don’t remember what it was, but I went and I sent it out to the same 60 people and I said I’m going to set up an hour. I’m going to come to your office, sit down, use it as an opportunity to learn a little bit about the person, but then get into a conversation. And I was kind of surprised because after about 15 or 20 of those interviews, there were some really, really clear themes about what was almost sacred about the company. And almost, “Don’t touch these kind of things,” like our values, this notion of profits through principles, this deep sense of pride about the impact that this company has in the world beyond just selling blue jeans. But at the same time, it was also really clear that there was no strategy. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. The company was very, very siloed. There was a huge amount of pride about the brand and the company but a real lack of understanding of how poorly the company was actually performing and had not really grown or created any shareholder value over more than a decade. And so, that really began the early phases of putting a strategy together is, “What are the things that we absolutely must protect?” And I would say, as I finally got it, it took me about a year or two, but this notion of profits through principles, which is one of the big differentiators of this company. This company punches way above its weight. We’re a $6-plus billion revenue company with a market cap of about $6.5 billion. And we get thrown around because of who we are and how we operate in the world. Our name gets associated with much, much bigger companies. Right? When we stood up to the immigration ban in 2016 that the president enacted unilaterally, the first week he was president in 2016, we immediately took a stand opposing the immigration ban because it was targeting people from Muslim countries, and it was just flat-out wrong. The headline in the newspaper the next day was, “Apple, Google, Facebook, and Levi’s stand up to the immigration policy.” They were all trillion-dollar market cap companies and little old us in the same headline because we have this long-standing tradition and focus as a company of not being afraid to stick our necks out to do the right thing and to make a difference in the world. And that is a big part of who we are. And part of the magic of this turnaround in the last decade is linking this concept of profits through principles to our business results internally with our employees. That the way we make a difference in the world is largely through the Levi Strauss Foundation and the nonprofit organizations that we work with. And we are able to have more impact with those organizations when we are more successful as a company. So the more profit we make, the more money we donate to the foundation, and the more great work that the foundation can do in the world. And that has created this virtual spiral. ‘Cause every employee wants us to make a difference in the world. And that kind of connects delivering strong business results to having an impact.
– Yup. And Chip, I don’t think you need moderators at all. I think you’re amazing at telling stories. So you talk a lot about employees and there, what are they saying? I’m curious in building these multi-generational brands, right? You also need to hear about the customer and what are they saying? So what are some of the strategies you did to listen to the customers more?
– Yeah, I think one of the things that we did pretty early on was, and my successor, Michelle, is doing the same thing, is really making a point of putting the consumer first in everything that we do, in designing our products and thinking about our marketing and how we go to market. Really putting the consumer front and center. And I learned that at P&G, too. I mean, Swiffer came out of great insights from the consumer. And I’ve always believed that you have to really listen and dig deep to understand the consumer. Our selling a great story on this. Actually, in India, it was in Bangalore that this happened. One of the things I love to do when I go to a market is do just real simple qualitative research with consumers. And sometimes, I’ll go shopping with a consumer and just understand how that consumer is shopping, what are they looking at, what do they like, what did they not like? And that’s a lot of fun. But this was early 2013, I think, maybe late 2012. I was in Bangalore, and I did a consumer in-home, and I was with a young woman who was in her 20s. She worked in the IT sector in Bangalore. She came from a wealthy family. They had a big house, air conditioning. And she also went to school in the U.K. So a good family. And she was recruited because she loved denim and she had multiple pairs of jeans. Long story short, did this qualitative research, at the end I said, “Can we see your jeans? Can we take a look at what jeans you’ve got?” And she walked into her bedroom with the moderator and the country manager and she spoke perfect English. So we didn’t need a translator or anything. And she laid out about eight pairs of jeans on her bed. And I said, “Well, tell us about each one of these.” And they weren’t all Levi’s to be clear, right? So the first pair was some premium brand. And she said, “Well these are my date jeans for fancy Saturday night date.” And we kind of went one by one down to the last two pairs of jeans, which were Levi’s, and the second to last pair, “OK, what are these for?” And she said, “These are my go-to jeans. If I’m going to go have coffee with a friend at the mall on Saturday, these are the jeans that I wear to just go out and hang out with my friends.” I was like, “OK, what about this last pair?” Silence. She gets a little wispy, a little tear in the eye and she says, “Well, to be honest with you, those jeans don’t even fit me anymore, but those are the jeans that I wore in college. They have the story of my college, my university years, and I can’t bear it apart with them.” And then she said, “You wear other jeans, but you live in Levi’s.” That is the selling idea in our advertising. If you watch our advertising, it’s live in Levi’s. And remember I said, “Everybody’s got a Levi’s story?” That’s what live in Levi’s is all about. Everybody’s got a Levi’s story. So it’s just a way to bring to life this notion of just really listening to the consumer and being very consumer-focused. And in apparel, you have to do that because trends change so fast. And when I first joined the company, we were missing trends, especially on the women’s business. Now, we’re leading trends, and we have been leading trends on the women’s business for the last five years or so, and we’re big enough that we can really create trends, too.
– So continuing on that listening theme, for someone who led the re-IPO, you talk a lot more about stakeholders than you do shareholders, I feel like. Can you talk a little bit about, A., how Levi’s treats its employees, whether that’s reproductive health care benefits, whether that’s advocating for gun reform in the U.S,, but then also, how you view that as a competitive advantage for hiring, especially being in the Bay Area, which I think a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily assume a company like Levi’s would place their headquarters.
– Well, Levi Strauss himself, the man, was a smart guy to put his company here in San Francisco and in the Bay Area. And I like to say we’re the original Bay Area startup. You know, “Who wants to come join us?” The original Bay Area startup. But no, stakeholder management is something that we’ve taken really, really seriously long before I came along. And I do consider our employees as one of our most important stakeholders. And I was telling you earlier, before we came out here, we got into this, we’ve taken a stand publicly on ending gun violence in this country. And we’ve been on this journey for the last probably seven years now. Seven years, I’m looking at Janna. It started because we have a couple hundred stores here in the United States. And in the United States, there are some states where people can walk around with a gun on their belt. And we have a company policy that employees are not allowed to bring guns to work. And so, we had store managers who were not feeling very safe because people were walking into their stores brandishing a gun, and they don’t know if they’re a good guy or a bad guy. And long story short, we had a customer in our store who went into the dressing room, had a weapon in his pocket, and when he dropped his jeans to try on a new pair of jeans, the weapon discharged, it went off. He literally shot himself in the foot, can’t make that up. And that was it. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back because that bullet, instead of going into his foot, it could have gone into one of my employees, it could have gone into one of the customers in a store. It could have gone into a customer’s child, it could have had a much more tragic ending. And our store managers know that other retailers had asked gun owners to not bring weapons into the store, particularly in open carry states. And so, we went to school and looked at other retailers who had done this. Notably, Target and Starbucks were the two models that we looked at. And we basically did what they did, which was politely, with courtesy, and with respect, to ask gun owners to not bring a weapon into the store. You don’t need a gun to try on a pair of Levi’s. And as you can imagine, there was immediate and massive blowback. And that is what basically got us into this journey. We got in deeper after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Is that OK? I get that right? Stoneman Douglas, after the shooting down in Florida in 2018, I think. And that’s when we talked to the board of directors about really going big and being public about trying to put an end to gun violence in this country. And if you talk to young people, which we do, and we quantitatively research young people as well, it is one of the top two or three things on young people’s mind. Most of you grew up in an environment, if you went to school here in the United States where you’d practice lockdown drills. And, oftentimes, in many schools, you don’t know if it’s a drill or the real thing. Many people have been impacted by gun violence in this country. I think the latest number is close to 60% of people know somebody who has been impacted by gun violence in this country. And it’s a top-three issue among young people here. And so, after that particular shooting, the Parkland shooting, we started working with the young people who were activating to really build a voice against ending gun violence in this country. And we supported them. And we’ve been in it now. In fact, our board of directors made it better. It’s like, “Don’t just use your voice, put your money behind it too.” And so, we have activated with our mouth and our money to try to put an end to gun violence in this country. And a year ago, or two years ago maybe now, U.S. Congress just passed the strictest gun violence legislation in over a decade. And we played a part in getting that done. We had over 500 companies’ CEOs join me in a letter to Congress to encourage them to pass that legislation. It’s the first time in over a decade where any gun legislation has been passed, and it’s one small step. We’re not all the way there, but we believe we’re making a big difference. And it all started because of our employees. Same thing, reproductive rights. I’ll try to be a little bit shorter here, but when Roe v. Wade was overturned, actually, before it was even officially overturned, when the leak happened, we immediately weighed in and said we were going to continue to support our employees with reproductive health care. And we were very public, and that really became the model that many companies followed, and we are still there for our employees even in states where it’s gotten egregious and very, very difficult for a woman to take care of her body as she wishes.
– Yeah, I think we have a lot of questions, but no time.
– I’m sticking around though. I’ll stick around.
– Yeah, I think it’s probably the last question is, I know you mentioned you’re going to teaching, and you’re probably coming to us to be a professor.
– I don’t know, I may not get a job after being so long-winded today.
– Yeah, no pressure though.
– You can make that check out to Manu’s, by the way.
– Yeah, but otherwise, what’s next for you? Apart from teaching that you’re thinking about?
– Well, I don’t know yet. It’s only been a couple of days. I still need to kind of get over the shock and awe of not going into the office and not being a CEO anymore. But I will say one thing. Yes, I was president and CEO of Levi Strauss for 12.5 years, and I’m really proud of everything that the company has accomplished over that period of time. But I think, unlike a lot of CEOs, I never made it who I am. I am first and foremost, a husband, a father, a brother, a friend. And that is still my identity. I also think of myself as an athlete. I’m a terrible athlete by the way, but I do try to take care of myself. I work out almost every day. That’s an important part of who I am, too. And so a lot of CEOs, the day they retire, they have this massive identity crisis. And there’s the funny story where the CEO goes out the front door and sits in the backseat of the car and then wonders why the car isn’t going anywhere. ‘Cause there’s no driver. And that’s not me. It’s not my identity. It never was completely my identity. It was what I had on my business card and what my job was. And I took those responsibilities really, really seriously. But I’m just a regular guy and I’m like a lot of you, and I’ve got hopes and dreams just like all of you. And I’ve got my blind spots and my weak spots as well. And there’s stuff that I’m still working on, too. So I put my pants on—my Levi’s on—one leg at a time just like everybody else. And I know that there’s a future still. So my biggest thing is, I do have a 15-year-old daughter who is a freshman in high school. She goes away, she’s at a boarding school actually on the East Coast. And my biggest thing is, I want to live a long, healthy life. And so that’s why I am really focused on fitness, nutrition, and I have been for a long, long time. You can probably tell it by looking at me, but part of what I want to do next is I want to stay very deeply engaged and do something where I have an impact. And that’s why teaching and being around young people like all of you is something that is really very high on my list.
– Thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you.
– Thank you. And I’m Robert Strand. I have the privilege to be the executive director of the Center for Responsible Business and the executive director of the Nordic Center here at UC Berkeley. And I will say, first, and Chip, congratulations on your 49ers victory. Chris, you’re a Lions fan. I’m a Packers fan, so I say that congratulations with a little bit of a wince, but I do hope the 49ers win that Super Bowl. Dean Harrison remarked on the long-standing ties with the University of California, Berkeley and Levi Strauss going back to 1897. And of course, in our name here, Haas School of Business, those ties with Levi’s are so strong, and we are so proud at the Center for Responsible Business that Levi Strauss is our longest-standing partner. And Anna Walker here was a longtime board member for the Center for Responsible Business. And we want to say on behalf of the Center for Responsible Business also, thank you so very much. Our partnership means so much. The dean also emphasized that, Chip, you’re known for successful brands, and has come out here as well, as you’re known for purpose and deep-seated purpose. And you exemplify beyond yourself and question the status quo in spades. And I think that there’s such a lesson for our MBAs here in that business leaders can and should be champions of strong public policy that’s in the interest of society. To use your role, your platform, your power to be lobbyists for society first and your company second. And you exemplify that so well, and the work in your leadership in gun violence prevention and democracy is so incredible. Now, Chip, you love students, and Liz, I’m going to ask you to come up here in a moment and ask some questions on behalf of students. And we are so fortunate here at Haas that soon, Chip will also be a professor here at Haas. Who would say, yes indeed?
– I’m excited.
– We’re so excited. We are so excited. So you can have the weekend, and then you come on Monday, the semester just started and away we go. All right, well with that then, some of your future students here have some questions. So Liz, Schasel, who’s our Center for Responsible Business, one of our fellows, we’re so proud to have you, Liz, please on behalf of the students. And, Chip, again, thank you so much. Thank you, Robert.
– Thank you, Chip, for being here and sharing such a great part of your story with us today. We have four very thoughtful questions from the audience, and we’ll start with a hardball. What is the hardest decision you made as the CEO of Levi’s? Why was it hard, and what did you do?
– I think probably the hardest thing, we actually had to do this twice, was a pretty serious round of layoffs. And the first time was shortly after I joined the company, 2013, 2014. When I joined the company, we had about $2 billion of debt. Our profit margins were really low, we weren’t generating a lot of cash. Our balance sheet was an issue, and we were bloated, we were fat. And I made the hard decision to lay off about 15% of the management workforce. We did it the right way, if there is such a thing of letting people go, but people got packages, they were taken care of. But that was really, really hard. And we had to do it again during the pandemic. When the pandemic happened, the pandemic was a really scary moment when you’re running a business because one day everything was fine, and the next day, we were all locked down, and our stores were closed, and most of our customers’ stores were closed, too. And so, that very first quarter, we normally do about $1.5 billion or $1.6 billion a quarter. The first quarter of lockdown, we did less than $500 million in revenue. And that was in the first two and a half weeks of the quarter before everything else shut down. And we had no idea how long we were going to be shut down. You want to talk about scary? It was like, “How much cash do we have, and how long can we last?” That was the question we were asking ourselves. So we immediately went out and got cash. So we got as much cash as we could get our hands on, but we also had to rightsize the organization because we knew that we were not going to be a $6 billion business that year or probably the following year. So we had to do it again in the middle of a pandemic. And that was pretty tough. So that’s the hardest thing about running a business is, when your costs get out of line, you have to go do something about it. And I inherited the first one. The second one was a pandemic, and it was hard. But that by far is the toughest thing. Needing to look somebody that you’re working—these are all good, talented people, and needing to look them in the eye and tell them that they don’t have a job is really brutal.
– Thanks for sharing that. I know many of the future business leaders in this room may face tough decisions, so it’s nice to hear from your experience. Our second question is about mentorship. Who were the biggest contributors or mentors in your career, and what was the most important lesson that they taught you?
– Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. I’m a big believer that mentorship is not something that can be assigned. P&G used to do that. They would assign you a mentee or a mentor. It never works. I think it happens naturally. There has to be that human connection. But I would encourage all of you to work hard to develop a mentor relationship with somebody. It can be your boss or your boss’s boss, or it could be somebody higher up but not in your direct line of command. I was blessed. I mean, I had a number of great mentors and still do. Probably my strongest mentor through the years was, he was my boss for a period of time at P&G. And he’s older than me, he retired ahead of me. But when I was thinking about taking the job at Levi’s, I actually flew to Cincinnati where he lived and took him out to dinner. He was already retired, took him out to dinner, and I laid it out on him. And I actually thought he was going to try to talk me out of it because he was a P&G retiree, worked for P&G his entire career, owned a lot of P&G stock, and I thought he was going to say, “You’d be crazy to leave P&G.” And he actually said the biggest thing I look back on and ask myself is, “Would I have been a good CEO?” And he said, “If you want to really test yourself, you want to set yourself up to do something that makes a big difference, you need to go do this.” And he made a huge difference in my life without one single piece of advice ’cause I was really wrestling with it. When you spend your whole career at one company, you’ve got your own personal brand, and your career is really, really well-established. It’s a huge risk at that stage to go do something completely outside of your industry and everything else. And he was like, “You got this, you can do this.” And it made a huge difference.
– Wow. Well please send our gratitude on behalf of the Levi’s fans in the rooms to your mentor. I would be remiss if we did not talk about sustainability. Sustainability is a big passion of a lot of the folks at Haas. Dean Ann Harrison has done a great job incorporating this into the curriculum. How did your perspective on sustainability in the consumer business change over the course of your career, especially as climate change has become a more urgent topic?
– Yeah, I would say when I was at Procter, sustainability was code language for cost savings, lightweight the package, take water out of the package, lightweight the product, figure out how to do round things in squares so that it ships more efficiently. It was all code language for cost savings really. And a lot of the sustainability things that we did really did generate real cost savings. They were still good to do for the planet, but they generated good cost savings. When I came over to Levi’s though, and I began to really understand the impact that the apparel industry has on planet Earth, it became much more of a wake-up call. And very, very early on, I was introduced to the lifecycle study that we had done on a pair of blue jeans, which was first done back in 2007 by the company to really understand the carbon impact of a pair of jeans from growing the cotton all the way through to consumer use and post-use. And that was an eye-opener. Then, early in my first year, I did a supply chain trip and really began to understand, from a supply chain standpoint, the impact that we have as an industry. Chemicals and water and water use, water reuse. And that had a big impact. And then, when we started doing a little bit of back the envelope math on the amount of garments that go into landfills and the impact that that has on planet Earth, as these things decompose, all began to really paint a pretty bleak picture about the apparel industry. And we’re one of the leading apparel brands in the world. And the good news is, the company was already marching forward on a very big sustainability agenda. And what I did was, I just basically deemed that all of our innovation was going to be through the lens of sustainability. And very early on, we created the Eureka! Innovation Center, which you see the patch, that’s the patch. They made this jean jacket for me, this trucker jacket for me is a going away gift, but it’s right down the street from our headquarters, and we’ve put an enormous amount of energy in sustainability. Eliminating bad chemicals from our supply chain. We’ve led the industry there, we open source all of that, figuring out how to reduce water use in the industry. We’ve open-sourced all of that, so anything that we find that is really good for planet Earth from a sustainability standpoint, we’re all in for sharing it. It doesn’t need to be a secret. And so it is our commitment. From a commercial standpoint, we’ve been working secondhand. I like to say, I have no data to back this up, but I like to say we’re the No. 1 brand in secondhand stores, right? Anybody disagree with that? I think we are. And we know that people love buying vintage jeans, vintage Levi’s, right? So we have now kind of curated our own secondhand website. So we have levissecondhand.com, which we actually operate with a partner and we encourage and incent consumers to bring in their old jeans, and we work with a third party to patch them up and clean them and then post them on the website, and we sell them at a nice discount. So we’re kind of all in on this and trying to figure out. And sustainability, actually, it’s a huge important thing for young consumers. So we’ve got to be doing it from that standpoint. It’s a consumer need today, but it plays right to our sweet spot as a company, right? A great pair of Levi’s is going to last you for a long, long time. We are all about quality that never goes out of style. And invest in a good pair of jeans, invest in a great trucker jacket, you’re going to be passing it on to your children or your grandchildren. And that is the ultimate of sustainability. Buying fewer things, buying less things, buying higher quality things, buying things that are going to last, and buying things that are versatile. That’s Levi’s. And so, we should be able to win on a sustainability platform, and we think we are.
– That’s fantastic to hear—and I’m sure a big reason why the collaboration between Haas and Levi’s has lasted for so long. Our last question from the audience is, “What are three things that any growing leader should keep in mind while leading a team and helping manage a business?”
– Ooh, OK. Alright, I’m going to give you a couple of the things that I like to say. Number one is: Do the harder right over the easier wrong, OK? And when you lead teams, you need to be aware that they’re looking for how you make your decisions. The harder right over the easier wrong, you will always go right. So that’s one important thing. Second, I’m a big believer in just complete transparency and being straight. And I think a lot of mistakes, or one of the mistakes, that many people make when they begin leading people and leading teams is they want to be liked. It’s OK to be liked. I’m not saying being liked is a bad thing, but I would suggest, don’t strive to be liked, strive to be respected, OK? You won’t be as straight with somebody if you want to be liked. But if you want to be respected, you will give people direct and clear feedback. You will help them grow. You will come from a place where you want them to continue to grow and develop and build and improve. And so, if that’s where you really come from, you can be straight with them. But if you want to be liked, you’re going to be nice to them. And they may not even hear the feedback that they need to hear because you’re going to couch it in a way that it sounds like you’re being nice to them. So strive to be respected, OK? That doesn’t mean you can be a jerk, but just be respected, be honest, be straight, be transparent. Be thoughtful and real with your people. And then, the third thing that I’ve been saying a lot as I’ve been exiting kind of stage right from Levi’s is, nobody’s ever going to remember you for the business results. They’re going to remember you for what you did for them. It’s a paraphrase of a Maya Angelou quote, but they’re going to remember how you made them feel. They’re going to remember how you made them grow. They’re going to remember you for how you made them better. They’re going to remember you for how you picked them up when they were down, or how you saw that they were struggling with something and you helped them out. That’s what they’re going to remember you for. And if you get people to follow you because of that, you will have lots of people wanting to follow you.
– Thank you, Chip, on behalf of the student body and everybody in the room, thank you so much for spending your time with us.
– Thank you very much.
– And that brings our evening to a conclusion. So Chip, thank you so much on behalf of Dean Harrison. This was a Dean’s Speaker Series and a Center for Responsible Business, Peterson Speaker Series. Everyone have a nice evening.
– Thank you.