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The Gift of Mobility

Former Levi Strauss executive provides disabled access for Haas and Cal students

Mel Becharach

Mel Bacharach, BS 48, didn’t know much about pants when he started working in sales at Levi Strauss after college. But he did have a head for business, and he was focused and persistent—traits he attributes to his upbringing and naval career (he’s a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War).

He learned about fibers and fabrics in a Berkeley Extension School class and helped grow Levi Strauss from a $12 million a year U.S. business in 1948 to a more than $4 billion enterprise in 56 countries in 1979, when he retired. In fact, during his tenure, which culminated in him serving as executive vice president, Levi Strauss doubled business every five years for 30 years.

Some of that growth can be attributed to bold decisions by Bacharach. He helped launch colored slacks, for example, and in the mid-1960s pushed for $1 million to develop a permanent-press fabric based on a Cotton Inc. patent. Bacharach and engineers developed a conveyor oven that allowed the pre-treated fabric to be mass produced. The result was Sta-Prest, the first mass-marketed, wrinkle-resistant trousers, which helped Levi Strauss gain a foothold in department stores.

Bacharach credits the fabric’s success to a highly coordinated marketing campaign that included sales reps carting portable dryers and sopping wet pants into stores. “They would throw them in the dryer and give their pitch,” Bacharach says. “That got the message across that we had something unique and different.”

Another big coup came a few years later when Bacharach pursued a bold overseas expansion. “There was a demand for Levis in Eastern Bloc countries,” he says. Bacharach targeted Hungary as the best place to manufacture garments and embarked on what he considers the crowning achievement of his career—convincing the then-communist country to build a plant. The gamble paid off and Levis solidified itself as an international brand.

Being mindful of underserved populations isn’t just a business strategy for Bacharach, it’s a value he lives by. He’s especially dedicated to those with mobility challenges, and his generous donation will ensure Berkeley-Haas’ new North Academic Building, slated for completion next Fall, will be ADA compliant, including an improved wheelchair ramp at Fisher Gate. Bacharach has also supported handicapped access and seating for Cal Memorial Stadium and an elevator in Haas Pavilion, among many other donations.

Accessibility is an issue close to Bacharach’s heart. His wife, Vera, a Berkeley alumna who passed away in 1995, relied on braces or a walker after contracting polio as an adult. “We traveled the world and did the things we wanted to do,” he says, “but when it was necessary to go upstairs, I carried her.” Her memory is honored in an existing wheelchair ramp at Haas affectionately named “Via Vera.”
—Amy Marcott

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