Levi's CFO & CMO on IPO Day: Denim Is Hot, Thanks to Us

Photo Credit: Richard Drew/AP/Shutterstock
March 21, 2019
Updated 1mo ago

By Carlo Versano

When Levi Strauss returned to the public markets after a 34-year absence Thursday, the company was welcomed at the NYSE by denim-clad traders as the stock exchange lifted its ban on jeans ー for a day, at least.

Perhaps the casual atmosphere did the stock good. Levi's stock ($LEVI) closed its first day above $22, more than 30 percent higher than its IPO price of $17.

That's a testament to the company's business strategy and recent successes, said Levi Strauss CFO Harmit Singh. He joined Cheddar alongside CMO Jen Sey on the stock's opening day.

The time was right for an IPO, Singh said, because of market conditions, strong sales, and a management team in place for the long haul ー a "good trifecta" for going public.

Levi Strauss has deftly navigated a changing retail landscape under the leadership of Chip Bergh, the company's CEO who came aboard in 2011 after a career at Procter & Gamble. Bergh joined Levi's as it struggled with increased competition and a mass-market move away from denim and toward athleisure.

Since then, Bergh instituted changes to make the brand's denim more comfortable and fashionable by taking "style cues" from athleisure leaders like Lululemon, as well as by embracing innovations like using lasers to manufacture the distressed look of their jeans. That change has led to a dramatic reduction in the company's use of chemicals, Sey said, which has the dual benefits of making the company more sustainable and the denim more easily customizable (Levi's first pop-up allowing customers to customize their jeans' look will open in L.A. this spring).

"Denim is hot and I'd say we're the reason why," she said.

Sales have grown across all categories and markets, according to Singh. And while most clothing retailers sell four tops for every (more expensive) bottom, Levi's is the opposite. Still, the brand does only 3 percent of its business in China ー a market that Singh said is a major opportunity for growth in the coming years.

As a 165-year-old business, Levi Strauss has the distinction of owning a brand that's indelibly tied to Americana, Sey said. "Everyone has a Levi's story." Her job is to tell those stories and continue to shift the now-public company into a "lifestyle brand" while keeping the iconic red-tabbed denim at the center of that story.