By Andrew Faught
When Chip Bergh ’79 became president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. in 2011, the iconic American company’s sales had dropped from a peak in 1996 of $7.1 billion to the $4 billion range through the 2000s.
“I tell people I was only going to do the hard thing in my career, and I wanted a challenge when I took this job,” he says. “I want this to be my greatest challenge.”
Bergh is focused on driving top and bottom line growth every year for the San Francisco apparel giant, which operates in 110 countries. Total sales last year were $4.6 billion, and in the first quarter sales were up four percent at $1.16 billion from the previous year.
Debt and “some bad choices,” including failing to seize on the premium jeans market, stifled the company, says Bergh, an international affairs graduate.
“It became a perfect storm in the mid-’90s. The easy growth was gone, debt became a noose around the neck, and finally the company went into crisis mode and became very internally focused,” he says. “The company stopped growing, stopped taking risks, and it became a downward spiral.”
Bergh traces some of his business sensibilities back to Lafayette, where he studied under Ilan Peleg, Dana Professor of Government and Law, and Robert Weiner, Jones Professor of History.
Weiner gave take-home essay exams, an exercise Bergh says spurred his best thinking.
“I pulled all-nighters to really nail them,” he recalls. “It forced me to do the research, think through the issues, and answer the questions thoughtfully.
“I got a well-grounded liberal arts degree, with a lot of exposure to different fields,” says Bergh, who nurtured a lifelong friendship with his Theta Chi roommate, Joshua Werner ’79, now an attorney in Boston.
Prior to Levi Strauss, Bergh spent 28 years at Procter & Gamble, where he ultimately rose to group president for the global male grooming unit.
“I’m competitive, and I like to win,” says Bergh, who is promoting a pair of innovative products: Levis Waste<Less™, a sustainable denim made with recycled plastic bottles, and the Dockers® alpha khaki, “khakis that act like jeans.”