Levi’s new CEO Michelle Gass: “In retail, everything

Michelle Gass’ first day as CEO of Levi Strauss & Co on January 29 has been several months in the making.  The global apparel company, which owns Levi’s, Dockers and Beyond Yoga, announced Gass as the successor to outgoing CEO Chip Bergh back in November 2022. The unusually long transition period was designed to ensure a smooth handover, and Gass and Bergh have been working together for the past year.  But while the two executives have much in common – they both had stints at con

at consumer packaged goods giant P&G, which is the reason they “hit it off immediately,” Bergh told Inside Retail – there are bound to be differences with any leadership change. 

Inside Retail had the opportunity to speak with Gass on a trip to Levi Strauss & Co’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco last September, and discuss the personal retail philosophy she has developed over her career. 

One step ahead

Before joining Levi’s, Gass was CEO of the discount department store chain Kohl’s for five years and was at Starbucks for 17 years, where she held various marketing and management roles. 

When it comes to what she sees as the key to success in retail – the product, the customer, or the team – she takes a maximalist approach. 

“In retail, everything matters, it really does,” she told Inside Retail. 

“Every part of the experience has to be absolutely spot on for the consumer. The consumer has to be at the centre, but then, it’s also our responsibility as a retailer and as a merchant to be one step ahead.”

This means staying on top of changing trends and tastes, but also dictating demand by investing in research and development to constantly push the boundaries of what’s possible. Like with Levi’s plant-based denim. 

“They’re never going to tell you what the next thing is that they’re going to fall in love with. We as retailers, and merchants have to connect the dots,” she said. “I would say in all my experiences in retail, the best innovations came from that sort of unarticulated need or connecting dots.” 

Innovation and experimentation are also key to Gass’ approach to leading a high-performing retail organisation. 

“One of the greatest things about retail, whether it’s your e-commerce or your stores, is that they’re all little learning labs. You can try things, and experiment, move fast, and then see what is scalable,” she said.  

“It’s all about the consumer, and how we minimally deliver on their expectations – but really, exceed their expectations – both in that moment and how we bring them the next exciting thing that they can look forward to from Levi’s.” 

It’s all about culture

Gass describes herself as a “huge advocate” of ensuring that frontline retail staff are as passionate and motivated to serve the customer as the leadership is. This requires not only being an attractive employer and hiring the right people but also giving team members the tools to understand the customer and deliver a great experience. 

“At the end of the day, I think one of the most important things that I need to do and that the leadership needs to do is about the culture,” she said. 

“Every single person who works for Levi’s – from the people working in the distribution center to the people who are working in the factories, even if they aren’t directly managed by Levi’s – we want them to be excited, inspired, and believe that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. 

“A lot of companies can say that, but there’s very few that can claim it. Levi’s is a brand that is bigger than the brand itself. It’s bigger than the label on a pair of jeans. It’s something that has transcended decades.”

For Gass, it’s all connected: by investing in product and its team members, the customer ultimately benefits. 

“I believe that our responsibility is to serve the consumer, but the next step is to serve the frontline, so they can take care of the consumer, and unleash them creatively. We operate thousands of stores around the world, if we don’t harness that, shame on us.”