[Organization & Culture] Who Stole My Levi’s?

I grew up with Levi’s. As a kid raised in Oregon, they were the jeans and cords that I wore to school, to play, and if I could have done it, to bed. They were what kids from the West wore and they were as dependable and reliable as you could get.

Along the way, things changed for the 156-year-old company. As apparel moved increasingly to fashion, Levi’s – the choice of James Dean and rebels to come – struggled and became seen as the jeans your parents wore. And as business shifted and struggled, outside hands were brought in to run what had been a family owned values-based company.

When I moved back west to San Francisco from Chicago to take of VP of Human Resources role with McKesson in the early 1990’s, Levi Strauss was one of a very few on my short list of places I’d think about working. It was an “iconic” company when that phrase did not mean “formerly relevant.” I scratched them from that list five major restructurings later and when Phil Marineau was hired as CEO from Pepsi and brought in a host of others from his old shop.

No knock on Marineau but I’d spent enough time being recruited by (the old) Pepsi to have an idea of that type of cultural shift the newcomers were likely to bring. [I still remember the limo driver, a cop who was African American moonlighting as a driver who was surprised when I was friendly, on time and asked to sit in front for the ride from my hotel to Pepsi’s headquarters. “Are you sure you’re interviewing with the right company?” he asked. “People from Pepsi are not on time, don’t talk to drivers, and never sit in front” he volunteered.]

I stopped buying their products figuring why spend money on a company in which I’d lost some faith and which seemed to have lost its way. When I needed casual clothes I skipped Levi’s and headed to clothes made by folks like Bills Khaki’s.

Levi’s had lots of company in their struggles as competitors such as VF Jeanswear (Wranglers and Lee jeans, as well as other brands such as the North Face) and others all tried to hit the right notes with consumers.

Last month I decided to give Levi’s another look: senior management had changed and perhaps the company and its products and operations had as well.

I visited the Levi Strauss flagship store on Union Square and later wished I had skipped the visit. The store itself was laid out poorly (e.g. not particularly intuitive where to find product), and looked like it could use some sprucing up. While the rap is that the store in the Castro district is done pretty well, this one downtown didn’t seem to be. The doorway greeters were clearly tolling time and not very helpful. Sales staff directed me to online to get the extra long 501 jeans I sought – “we don’t carry anything past 36” in the store and you can get up to 38’s online.”

The online store was about as well done as their physical space – which means a little scattered – and the sales clerk had erred about the 38” length: online you could get lengths up to 40”.

Levi’s seems like they are trying hard to regain their cool, seeking it seems, to be not your parent’s clothes but rather your son’s, daughter’s or younger cousins. and we’ll see if the approach works. For sentimental purposes I hope it does.

“Road Trip” is a facilitated exercise I developed and lead based on research regarding teams and organizations. While most of the work is with leadership and start up teams, the principles also apply to entire organizations.

Research shows that organizations are at their best when they have a clear sense of destination(s), deliverables or milestones, roles and responsibilities, and how the different parts of the organizations will work together.

When you workshop the Road Trip exercise one of the things that surfaces is competencies and skills that you have and those that you lack. While it’s great to say, as a metaphor, that you want to be a “driver” on road trip, it requires you a have license and actually be able to drive. That realization that you’re lacking something can be painful, but it forces you to figure out if you can reach the destinations to which you aspire, or if you have to rethink your plans: better a Plan B that works rather than a Plan A that’s destined to fail.

One of the things that Levi Strauss does well is make great jeans, and its Dockers label for many years was a market leader. One of the things that it appears to struggle with is the retailing and marketing side of the business. While historically its products were sold through retailers – ironically that’s how Gap got its start – the organization has struggled to shift to be the end-to-end company – design through production and marketing to sale – that is prevalent in the market today.

Yesterday I went back to school shopping for my seven-year-old son. We ended up buying his jeans at Gap Kids out of ease and availability since I didn’t want to try a repeat of trying to find the right merchandise at one of the Levi Strauss stores in the City.

I wish it had been different and that my son would be wearing Levi’s. My hunch is that I’m not alone, and that the folks at Levi Strauss somehow know it. And I still wonder who stole my Levi’s.