Incoming Levi’s CEO reaches ‘culmination of everything I’ve done’

NRF 2024: Michelle Gass sees possibility and potential in the days ahead
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor

January 29, 2024, might mark the official start for Michelle Gass as CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. – but her role has been in the making for more than 30 years.

Addressing the NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show crowd in a Sunday morning keynote, Gass shared how her decades of experience at Kohl’s, Starbucks and Procter & Gamble prepared her for the position. As Kohl’s is one of the largest retailers for the Levi’s brand, she said, her longtime working relationship with outgoing Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh deepened.

Gass was named president of Levi Strauss & Co. in late 2022, with the understanding that she’d succeed Bergh. The 13-month transition has been “seamless,” though admittedly unconventional.

“Being here at this moment is the culmination of everything I’ve done,” she said.

Learning the Levi’s business

Gass joined National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay for the keynote; Shay sported a custom NRF denim jacket for the occasion, gifted from Levi’s; Gass wore a blue denim skirt.

NRF 2024: Retail's Big Show

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Shay lauded the plan for the leadership transfer. He also asked Gass what made her leave Kohl’s, where she had a highly successful run as CEO — taking the company through omnichannel transformation, growing its ecommerce business to $6 billion and advancing its loyalty program.

“When you get a call from someone like Chip, who I’ve known for more than a decade, and when it’s Levi’s, one of the most global, iconic brands in the world, you take the call,” Gass said. She’s had a full year to get to know the business, the culture and the team, she said, allowing her to be an “insider” even before the transition.

“This has been a fantastic gift and privilege to have a year to really dig in, right?” she said. Besides, she knew Bergh to be both “an amazing leader and person, someone I deeply admired, respected and trusted, and that only grew as the year went on.”

Initially, Gass said, she didn’t fully appreciate the international reach of Levi’s; the company is now in 110 countries with 3,000 stores.

She and Bergh made 15 trips global trips over the past year, including three to Asia: The Asia business in particular, she said, is “growing in the mid-teens.” They visited Shanghai, Tokyo, India, the Philippines, Thailand and more, and found a plethora of opportunity. There’s also strong growth in Mexico and Latin America, as well as possibilities in more mature markets like Europe and the United States. And then there’s ecommerce.

Building on key principles

During the talk, Gass laid out five key learnings: the importance of the power of brand; being obsessive about the consumer; the importance and power of innovation; the fact that everyone today “needs to think like an omnichannel retailer”; and purpose and values.

With innovation, she referenced the 20th anniversary of the pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, which is something consumers didn’t even know they needed. Even though the PSL didn’t originally test well with consumers, she said, “We knew there was something special there.” She experienced the same at Kohl’s, partnering with Amazon for returns.

As for purpose and values, it’s how she’s “wired.” At Levi’s, she said, there’s talk about how “everything we do is driving profits through principles. And we live it.”

She sees “nothing but possibility” in the days ahead. “It’s Levi’s. It’s the 501. That’s not going to change. It’s a beloved, iconic brand, around the world. What an amazing opportunity to come here with all of this brand strength. But yes, we have to continue to invest.” One of the things Bergh and the team did brilliantly over the past 12 years, she said, “was really putting Levi’s back in the center of culture.”

The company will always be famous for its blue jeans, she said, but there’s an eye toward the “top-to-bottom denim look.” She touched on denim skirts, dresses, woven button-down shirts and more.

“I’m super proud and excited of the work the team is doing,” she said. “I’ve already seen the line through 2025, and I will just say, just wait. There’s some really great stuff coming.”

Levi Strauss & Co.'s Michelle Gass talks with NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay at NRF 2024: Retail's Big Show.

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