In the onslaught of pandemic-related retail bankruptcies, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh isn’t too worried. It turns out, lots of people are still wearing jeans—even during coronavirus lockdowns. On the latest episode of “Leadership Next,” Bergh spoke with cohosts Alan Murray and Ellen McGirt about his business, COVID-19, purpose-driven leadership, his political views, and more.
“I really do see that the pandemic is further separating the winners from the losers,” Bergh says of the pandemic and recession. “And we’re determined to come out of this as a winner.”
He says that the brand has never been stronger, with a robust balance sheet and ecommerce that’s trending up by double digits despite worldwide closures of storefronts during the lockdowns. And as consumers are becoming more conscious of quality and sustainability, Bergh says, Levi’s will be well-positioned to meet their needs and continue its 167-year success story.
Part of that long history, the CEO says, is “doing the right thing.” And to Bergh, that includes speaking out on gun control. He says the company waded into the issue by asking customers to leave their guns at home when shopping after a customer in an open-carry state discharged his gun, injuring himself in a Levi’s store. But the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was a tipping point for Bergh and the company, he says.
“I see the gun violence epidemic as something that is ripping society apart at the seams,” he says.
Murray asked Bergh what he says to those that believe a CEO’s job is to run a business, not worry about the safety of school kids. Bergh says that he firmly believes CEOs and companies have roles to play in making the world a better place. And Levi’s customers—young consumers—and its employees care about gun violence, which makes speaking out about the cause an even easier choice, Bergh says.
Bergh has also paid special attention to getting people to the polls. This year, Levi’s is reupping its commitment to getting out the vote, which it started with Patagonia in 2018. To date, over 700 companies have now joined the Time to Vote coalition created to encourage voter participation. Along with that, the Levi Strauss Foundation is donating around $1 million dollars to help minority communities overcome the myriad barriers they face to get to the polls. One of the organizations receiving funding is She The People, which works to bring together a national network of women of color to change U.S. democracy and create “politics grounded in love, justice, and belonging.” Around the 24-minute mark, McGirt interviews the organization’s founder, Aimee Allison.
The episode also includes discussion on the hard choices Bergh made around layoffs, a look into the ambitious diversity and inclusion plan he published in June, and leading a multinational corporation through the uncertainty of a pandemic.