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Winter 2002 CalBusiness  
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501s Go Global

Capitalizing on the post-World War II demographic changes and the increasing popularity of blue jeans, the Haas brothers diversified their product line to appeal to younger markets across the country. They added a casual pant with an inside back pocket, called Levi's(r) Slim Fits, which later developed into the white jeans that became so popular during the sixties.

American GIs who had worn their Levi's(r) jeans and jackets abroad during the war helped develop Levi's(r) international reputation. In 1959 the company started to export its product to Europe. LS&CO. was among the first US companies operating plants abroad behind the Iron Curtain, where its Levi's(r) became a currency of the black markets, selling for as much as $90.

True to its vision, LS&CO. shared its success with its employees. The company was one of the first to distribute equity shares to employees. Peter and Walter Haas expanded this program and added other benefits, such as childcare, health benefits for domestic partners, and flexible work schedules.

"We felt that we had to keep growing in order to attract people to us," said Peter Haas. "We couldn't consider not growing." So in 1971, LS&CO. decided to go public and used the funds raised in the initial public offering to finance acquisitions. Peter Haas, who had been named president in 1970, became CEO five years later. In 1979 LS&CO. acquired Koracorp Industries, which helped raise the company's sales to $2.9 billion in 1981. The great success of LS&CO. in the 1970s earned Peter Haas public recognition. Financial World Magazine selected him as its CEO of the Year, and Time Magazine named him a Leader of Tomorrow.

Being public for some time fueled the company's success, but it also changed the management of the company considerably. Peter Haas felt uncomfortable with the amount of disclosure required. He also said it was easier to make decisions as a private company: "We were freer in the sorts of things we could do. We were more flexible." He also recalled concerns that the company's financial responsibility to shareholders would take precedence over principles regarding employee relations and community service.

So, in two rounds (in 1985 and in 1996), Haas and core family members bought back all employee-owned shares and reinvested all family-owned shares in a trust, making LS&CO. a privately-owned company again.

Read more:

Building a Legacy
Building a Committed Workforce
501s Go Global
Sharing with the Community

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