I discovered a fantastic talk about sustainability by John Anderson, the CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. to the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. In it he describes the efforts they are making to lead the world in cutting down the environmental impact of their products, both before and after manufacture.
But the really interesting content for me was the insights into the unique values of this 155 year old company. An example: after the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco the company extended credit to its wholesale customers to help them get back in business, and all employees were kept on the payroll whilst production facilities were rebuilt. That’s the sort of thing you do when you understand the value of community, long term relationships and retaining great people.
Levi’s was a market leader for a long time, but it went through a crisis time where its commercial success waned. Extensive research was carried out and they found that whilst customers loved the company and loved the brands, the products were not liked or relevant. John Anderson explains:
“We went back and looked at our product. I firmly believe today that without that consumer goodwill that we’d built up it would have been very difficult to get through that challenging period. We worked hard to turn around so now we’re market leaders again. I believe our values played a key role in buying us that time and getting the consumer to come back and buy our products. I put emphasis on consistent and authentic values, because I strongly believe that customers quickly sniff out companies who do things for the short term pr or marketing [advantage]. They know the difference and reward it with their loyalty.”
Asked by a faculty member to give an example of a challenging moment, one which illustrated difficult choices in action, Mr Anderson continued with a challenge to the audience of business school students:
“What’s important to you? What’s really important to you? If you’re clear on what your values are, that should play a role in what companies you want to work at. You’ve got to start from there. Companies like Levi Strauss… we’ve been very in clear in what we stand for. I have no doubt that I would not be at this company today if it did not really align with my own values and what was important to me. If you get them, every day is not so much a test, just reinforcing what you believe in.
“[When recruiting] I really want to know, what’s important to you? My company might not be the place you want to work. We’re not going to be a company that does profit without principles; that’s not who we are. We have our key values. That’s what makes us who we are. I’m not saying every company should be like that, but after 150 years something works. And the commitment to that is non negotiable from me and my team, and the stakeholders and shareholders are aligned with that as well. From top to bottom.
Where do you want to work?
What’s important to you?
Do you have the courage to stay committed to that journey?
“I have talked people out of joining Levi Strauss. If you want to come here and be ruthless, slash and burn, and only drive profit to the bottom line, this isn’t the place for you to be. If you truly want to come in and align to the values and drive sustainable profitable growth, then this is an option for you. So we have our filters. But at the end of the day they’re not difficult, [the values], because they’re there, we’re disciplined and we obey them. When things got really tough we didn’t back off. We stayed true. But we sure were tested; we certainly were tested. That’s what leadership is really about. Now more so than ever.”
Competing in the world of fashion, where trends come and go, the one thing that remains constant at Levi’s is their values, and it seems to have kept them at the top of their game for over a century and a half. I’m prepared to bet they will be around to celebrate their 200th anniversary and beyond, still as the market leader.
You can watch the video here:
If you liked this blog post please comment below. You can also subscribe by email to future postings, by entering your address on the right hand side of this page just below the photo of me.