Who says a 166-year-old denim brand can’t be the hot new thing again?
Levi Strauss & Co on Wednesday filed paperwork with regulators to return to the stock market after a 34-year absence, buoyed by strong sales and profit growth in recent years that shows an established clothing brand, particular in the hyper-competitive jeans market, can reinvent itself.
The company, which invented its iconic Levi’s blue jeans in 1873 with the use of rivets that strengthened the seams in denim work pants, had revenue of $5.58 billion in 2018, up 14% from a year earlier. Levi Strauss plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange with the ticker “LEVI,” it said in its initial public offering prospective filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Only a few years ago, Levi was choking on a heavy debt load and struggling to reinvent itself in the competitive denim market. It had grown overly reliant on department stores, a declining area of retail, and had to contend with the growth of athleisure, a category that severely hurt most denim makers. What’s more, on the high end, premium brands like J.Brand and AG emerged. At the worst of Levi’s time wandering in retail’s desert, sales fell from an-all time peak of $7 billion in 1997 to $4.1 billion five years later.
Under Chip Bergh, a 28-year Procter & Gamble (PG)executive, who became CEO in 2011, the company became more disciplined in the categories it would chase, notably not jumping on the yoga pants craze and instead improving its own offerings. It vastly improved its women’s jeans, adding more stretch material and improved their looks. Levi also found success with tops, an area it had long treated as an afterthought. The result: its women’s division has grown for 10 consecutive quarters. (When Bergh took the reins, 80% of profits came from men’s jeans and Dockers, and primarily from department stores.)
As Bergh described it in a Harvard Business Review piece last year, Levi Strauss had lost sight of what its customers wanted, so he has made in-home visits, a basic tool at P&G, a fixture of his tenure at Levi Strauss too.
The company also expanded its own network of stores (in 2018 alone it opened 74 more stores, including notably a 17,000 square foot store in New York’s Times Square.) That has allowed it to become less reliant on chains like J.C. Penney (JCP) and Macy’s (M). Bergh, who was not made available by the company for comment for this story, has said he knew a big chunk of apparel sales would shift online and saw the need for more Levi’s stores to support, rather than be reliant on wholesalers for how the brand represents itself.
Levi Strauss also deftly manages to straddle the high and low ends, a tough trick in apparel, doing brisk business at mass chains (sales at chains like Walmart and Target rose 28% last year) as well as at Nordstrom and Barneys New York.
Another ingredient in its return to form has been a focus on overseas market, where Levi’s American roots have particular cachet. In Europe, sales rose 20% last year. And as importantly, Levi has paid down a big chunk of its considerable bet debt, chopping it by more than half between 2011 and last year when it fell from $911 million to $444 million.
When Levi Strauss, No. 37 on Fortune‘s Change the World list for its sustainability efforts, does become a listed company, likely within a few months, it will be the first time since 1985, when descendants of the founder took it private after 14 years as a public company. Apparel and retail are tough sells now on Wall Street now. But Bergh returns the company to the market as a much leaner, more focused Levi Strauss than has existed in decades.
As Bergh, who thinks Levi Strauss could eventually be a $10 billion a year company, put it in the HBR last year, “Levi’s lost a generation of consumers in the early 2000s, but today our customers are younger than ever—and we’re gaining momentum as we bring them back.” And that is the case he has put before Wall Street.