A Legacy of Impact : Student Reflections on the Career of Chip Bergh, Former CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.

Monday, January 29, 2024. Chip Bergh, newly retired former president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., woke up and, for the first time in over 40 years, did not have to go into the office.

Thursday, February 1, 2024. With under a week to process, he was already back in the hot seat, this time sitting in front of a room full of students, being asked to reflect on his legacy and what’s next, for the Dean’s Speaker Series.

Like many others, I showed up to the event, drawn by the Levi’s brand glow and hoping to gain maybe one nugget of wisdom.  Throughout the event, I was enthralled by Chip’s great storytelling, and by the end, I felt inspired by his journey and a little more confident and excited for my own long career ahead.

A few hard and valuable lessons learned by Chip:

On the true meaning of leadership, he shared his crash course in servant leadership as a platoon leader in the military right out of college, and he cautioned us to strive to be “respected, rather than liked,” in order to deliver honest feedback and transparency through tough times. He advised us to “take the hard right over the easy wrong,” especially in matters of employees, social impact, sustainability, and political advocacy.

As a self-proclaimed “brand guy,” he shared his love for brands, what they mean to people, and how important it is to listen to consumers. He revealed that “everyone has a Levi’s story” and tapped into the emotional and historical bond with customers to turn the company around. Fun fact: my own Levi’s story was that Levi’s was my first client as an intern at Accenture – my manager told me to go out and buy a pair of Levi’s before my first day because it was unacceptable to wear any other pair in the office!

He also proudly claimed to view himself as more than just a CEO. It was so refreshing to see a high-powered male prioritizing being a dad, a husband, his health, his friends, and work-life balance over his identity as a CEO.

Finally, when talking about how he measures his impact at various brands over the years, he focused on people over individual accomplishments. He counts 39 people who have reported to him and have gone on to become CEOs of their own companies. The stories his employees shared at his retirement sendoff touched him – how the smallest gestures that he barely remembered doing could alter the course of someone’s life. He shared how his own mentor gave him the life-changing advice that gave him the confidence to take the Levi’s CEO role – “if he didn’t try, he would always wonder ‘what if?’”

That last story alone gave me a little boost of confidence in taking on challenges in my own career, aiming high, and testing my limits. I’m sure everyone walked away with their own little pearl of wisdom, and I was happy to hear that this trend will continue, as Chip has agreed to become a professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business! Retirement, says who?

Written by Sylvia Tang, MBA ’24

Photo credit: Katelyn Tucker Photography

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