Levi's Strauss & Co. president and CEO Chip Bergh is redefining modern leadership.
At times it seems Chip Bergh is the president and CEO of the entire denim industry, but that’s the level of responsibility that comes with being at the helm of the world’s largest and most storied denim brand, Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.).
In 2018, Bergh has spoken out about climate change, equality, worker education, the potential impact of President Trump’s trade war and more — all while leading the company on an upward trajectory it hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years.
From being the first Fortune 500 company to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners in the 1980s, to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with concerned employees in San Francisco to distribute information about HIV/AIDS before the disease even had a name, LS&Co. has a long track record of courageous leadership that Bergh says inspires him every day.
“I believe that CEOs today have a moral obligation and a social responsibility to speak out on the important issues of our time and be a positive force for change in the world, even if that means taking an unpopular stand,” he said. “I am convinced that doing the right thing and living our values — which often means choosing the tougher right over the easier wrong — is what has helped to keep LS&Co. at the center of culture for more than a century; and there’s no sign of slowing down.”
In fact, LS&Co. is speeding up its production time. In March, the company announced Project F.L.X., a new process that replaces manual finishing with lasers to reduce the time it takes to give jeans their worn-in look from 20 to 30 minutes to just 90 seconds.
Bergh considers Project F.L.X. to be a transformative way to design, make and sell jeans.
“It’s important to recognize that lasers have been around for a long time, but they lacked the granular capabilities required to finish jeans without supplementing it with hand finishing. We have developed proprietary technology that takes this blunt instrument and makes it surgical, allowing us to perfectly match our products to a hand-finished pair of jeans,” he said. “This technology is a game-changer for us because it also opens up an entirely new operating model for the company. And on top of that, it allows us to eliminate thousands of chemical formulations from the jeans finishing process, which is a huge sustainability win.”
That laser-sharp focus on design, innovation and sustainability is paying off. LS&Co. has grown double digits for three straight quarters; its direct to consumer business has grown double digits for 12 quarters in a row.
“It’s been a lot of hard work by everyone in this company to get this big ship turned,” Bergh said, “and I couldn’t be more excited about where we are today and our prospect for the future.”
What is your first denim memory?
“As a 22-year-old, I took a backpacking vacation in Europe in 1980 using a Euro Rail pass trip through Norway and Sweden staying in youth hostels and camping grounds. It’s the kind of trip where you wash your clothes by hopping into the shower with them on and washing yourself down with a bar of soap and hanging everything up to dry overnight. So, in Norway, in a youth hostel, I needed to wash my clothes. I took my wallet out of my jeans, put it on the window sill, jumped into the shower wearing my Levi’s, soaped myself down, rinsed off, rung everything out, hung it out to dry and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning I realized I had left my wallet in the bathroom. Of course I run to the bathroom, and guess what, my wallet is still there but my Levi’s are gone!
This is how powerful the brand was back in the 1980s. It was like currency, perhaps even worth more than cash in several parts of the world. I had friends who graduated from college with me and traveled through Eastern Europe and Russia with suitcases full of Levi’s jeans and Marlboro cigarettes, basically bartering their way through for a couple of weeks.”
What is your favorite pair of jeans?
“I have a pretty good collection at this point, but I think my favorites are still the classic 501s. They are the original, and they have spoken to generation after generation because of their authenticity, which never goes out of style.”