Levi Strauss & Co. spent 166 years building a brand strong enough to be everything from work-ready gear for gold miners to touchstone for the rock ‘n’ rollers to part of the new casual uniform.
That cultural cachet and a blockbuster initial public offering — which saw the stock jump 32 percent to $22.41 for an $8.1 billion valuation — was just enough to get the New York Stock Exchange to relax its strict no-denim policy.
At least for Thursday morning.
When Chip Bergh, chief executive officer of Levi’s since 2011 and architect of its dramatic turnaround, rang the opening bell, more than 300 traders on the floor were outfitted in Levi’s jeans and jackets, provided by the company.
By the time the closing bell came, the no-jeans policy was coming back into effect and the stock exchange regained its spot as one of the last bastions of strict workplace dress codes.
But even if the NYSE went casual for just a moment, Levi’s change is more lasting — the company is now in the grasp of Wall Street, where it is traded under the ticker “LEVI.”
This is round number two for Levi’s on Wall Street. The company went public in 1972, but then was taken private in 1985 in a deal that topped $2 billion.
In an interview at the exchange on Thursday afternoon, Bergh was still going strong after a 10-day road show talking to would-be investors and a whirlwind start to trading. (He did need some fuel, though. “Can I get another?” he asked. “I need my Starbucks. Four shots of espresso — half-caff — with two Splendas.”)
The IPO and its big first-day jump stood out in a world where investors worry about nearly everything retail — from the traffic at the mall to online competition to disruptions from the trade war.
But Bergh said the offering was oversubscribed by well more than 10 times.
“There was a lot of investor interest and appetite,” the ceo said. “It’s driven by the combination of the business results that we’ve had, our confidence in the future — you’ve got one of the most iconic brands, not just in apparel, but in the world. Our story clearly resonated. It is a turnaround story, we’re not done.
“There is an appetite for companies that have a strong moral compass, that are committed to doing the right thing, talk about the harder right versus the easier wrong,” he said of Levi’s, which has a long history of jumping into social causes, from addressing the AIDS epidemic in the Eighties to opposing President Trump’s order to ban immigrants from Muslim countries.
Levi’s is also a business based on a very understandable product — jeans — and not a whole lot of smoke and mirrors.
“So many of the IPOs that the market gets to see today, they’re in tech, they’re companies that have a highly leveraged balance sheet, may not even be positive from a cash-flow standpoint, certainly aren’t paying dividends,” he said.
Levi’s, on the other hand, has a solid balance sheet, top- and bottom-line growth and paid a dividend of $110 million this year.
“We’re like a real company that does things real companies are supposed to do, like generate revenue growth,” he said.
Sales rose 13 percent to $5.6 billion last year as the company worked to grow the core jeans business while expanding in women’s and tops and building out its store network and the brand’s international presence.
Levi’s is in the midst of transitioning from a bottoms business to more of a lifestyle brand.
The company now has a little more of a war chest to work with as it pushes that expansion. It raised $161 million in the offering, money that is expected to go to general corporate purposes and, perhaps someday, an acquisition.
Other selling shareholders — a group made up almost entirely of the Haas family, who are descendants of founder Levi Strauss — raised roughly $462 million in the offering. The family retains control of Levi’s by virtue of their Class B super-voting shares.
The perceived value of the company, however, is now at the whim of investors who can turn and sell in an instant as they gauge the future of all things Levi’s.
Bergh said, yes, the company has some new investors, but otherwise he will continue to run the business as he has.
“When I joined, I said, ‘This is the last job I’m ever going to do,’” the ceo said. “I joined the company because I love the brand, I believe in the brand. I saw this as an opportunity to turn around one of America’s great companies, one of America’s greatest brands and make a difference. And leave a legacy.
“The team that got us here is going to be the team that takes us forward,” he said. “I’m not cashing out. We’re sticking around because my job isn’t done….Being a publicly traded company ensures our success for the next 166 years. We’ve got long-term investors who are really committed to our story.”