Years before he was reviving an iconic apparel enterprise, Chip Bergh was just another teen imploring his mother to drive him a few towns over so he could buy a pair of Levi’s jeans as he started seventh grade.
Four decades later, Bergh has saved the sinking Levi Strauss & Co. brand by reviving its line of women’s denim, expanding direct-to-consumer sales, branding the San Francisco 49ers stadium with the Levi’s name, and returning the company to the public market.
Bergh visited Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to share insights on how to change a company’s culture, revamp a brand and why Levi’s takes a position on touchy topics such as immigration and gun policy. But he began his Distinguished Speakers Series conversation with Dean Bill Boulding by talking about how serving as a U.S. Army officer taught him how to lead.
“Many of the leadership characteristics and traits that I still have today came from my days in the military,” said Bergh, who last year was named one of the world’s top leaders by Fortune Magazine. “A lot about servant leadership, putting your people before you. Never asking people to do something that you yourself wouldn't do yourself.”
The full video of Boulding and Bergh’s talk is above, with excerpts below highlighting Bergh’s comments about changing the Levi’s culture, the purpose of business and gaining the public’s trust, and his work in CEO activism, including the brand’s advocacy for stronger gun laws.
“I think every CEO in every company has to really assess what's the right thing for their business, their company and their stakeholders,” Bergh said, adding that after Levi’s took a stand on gun violence, business started to grow. “I do get hate mail, and I get mail from consumers saying ‘I'm out, I'm not buying your brand ever again,’” he said. “But, we're also getting people coming to the brand for the first time because of our stand,” he added. “At the end of the day, I like to say history is going to judge whether this was the right call or the wrong call.”