Levi’s Chip Bergh on rebuilding a brand

Along with The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future, the NRF Foundation Gala honors The Visionary, a retail executive with a proven track record of orchestrating change in the industry. Earlier this year, Levi Strauss & Co. President and CEO Chip Bergh was selected due to the momentous turnaround the company has experienced under his leadership.

Chip Bergh, Levis
Chip Bergh

Ahead of the Gala — and NRF 2019: Retail’s Big ShowSTORES Editor Susan Reda spoke with Bergh about connecting with customers, company culture and the importance of leading with integrity. Here’s a sneak peek at the conversation; check out the NRF 2019 STORES Show Daily for the full interview. Bergh will also be a keynote speaker at NRF 2019.

On rebuilding the brand

When Bergh joined Levi’s, he realized the brand had lost sight of the consumer and needed to regain that connection. His solution: In-home visits with Levi’s customers to hear directly from them, along with a lot of internal questions about what consumers want. “We started to redefine what ‘being at the center of culture’ meant in today’s world,” Bergh says, which led to an emphasis on connecting with consumers in an authentic way — along with Levi’s gaining the naming rights to the San Francisco 49ers stadium.

Part of that consumer connection involves remaining relevant, and Bergh says a large part of that comes down to focus. “So often organizations get distracted by rumors and speculation,” he says. “We’ve navigated a highly complex and tumultuous landscape and we’ve come out on top because we stayed focused on what we could control — and we had contingencies in place for things we had no control over.”

On taking a stand

Levi’s Worker Well-being initiative, launched in 2011, seeks to improve the lives of the people who make Levi’s products in factories around the world. It’s reached more than 150,000 workers in 12 countries to date, covering more than 80 factories; the effects are far-reaching and inspirational. “We believe a rising tide lifts all boats, which is why we’ve open-sourced this program so others in the industry can adopt these same practices.”

It goes beyond worker initiatives, though: Bergh believes companies must speak out about issues that impact their communities, starting with their leadership. “As CEOs, we have a moral obligation to do the harder right rather than the easier wrong,” he says, “even if that means taking an unpopular stand.”

Lightning Round

How many pair of Levi’s do you own? Let’s just say I have a lot of options!

What’s your favorite pair and why? I have a pair of U.S.-made Levi’s 501s which I’ve owned for over 10 years. They have never been washed in a washing machine and they are amazing.

What’s the last book you read? “Bad Blood”

If you could change on thing on your resume, what would it be and why? I would change my current title to Chief Values Officer.

What’s the last thing you changed your mind about? A flight from New York. I moved it up to get home earlier to see my family.

Rank the following in order of importance: Investors, Management, Colleagues, Customers, Oneself It really depends on the situation, but I would say as the leader of LS&Co.: Consumers, Colleagues/Management, Investors, Oneself. [I struggled with putting “oneself” first because I’m a firm believer that if you’re not taking care of yourself, how can you be useful to others?]

Who do you turn to for advice? My wife is my “go-to” on most things and I have a handful of mentors that I look to for big decisions. Our chairman of the board, Steve Neal, has been a sage advisor throughout my tenure as CEO.

How often do you get to Levi’s Stadium? I try to get to as many home 49ers games as possible and have attended a bunch of concerts and other special events there.

What’s the most memorable event you’ve seen there? Super Bowl 50 — it was indescribable and such a proud moment.

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