Buttenheim, Germany Died: September 26, 1902
San Francisco, California
Founder, Levi Strauss & Company
Levi Strauss's life is one of the great examples of the American immigrant success story. Through hard work, the willingness to take risks, and some luck, Strauss became one of the most prominent citizens of San Francisco at the end of the nineteenth century. Strauss also lent his name to one of the best-known and best-loved U.S. products: Levi's blue jeans.
Levi Strauss—first known as Loeb—was born on February 26, 1829, in the small village of Buttenheim, in the Bavarian region of Germany. His father Hirsch had four children with a first wife, and three with Rebecca Haas, Strauss's mother. The elder Strauss sold dry goods, and several of his sons continued the family business after they left Germany. The Strausses were Jewish, and the United States offered them greater freedom and opportunities.
"I am a bachelor, and I fancy on that account I need to work more, for my entire life is my business."
Levi Strauss made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1847 with his mother and two sisters. After his arrival in New York, Strauss went into business with his half-brothers Jonas and Louis, who had immigrated earlier. As an employee at J. Strauss Brother & Company, Strauss learned how to buy and sell cloth and other dry goods. In 1849, Strauss left for Kentucky to work as a peddler, selling an assortment of items out of a pack or trunk he carried on his back.
By this time, gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill, just outside Sacramento, California, drawing thousands of fortune hunters to the area. As the "gold rush" continued, Strauss's sister Fanny and her husband David Stern went to San Francisco to open a dry-goods business. In 1853, Strauss decided to join them. After becoming a U.S. citizen, he sailed for California, bringing dry goods supplied by his brothers' company.
Strauss set up his own wholesale business, called simply Levi Strauss, and acted as the West Coast agent for his half-brothers. As his business grew, Strauss moved several times to larger quarters. Eventually David Stern joined his business. Their supplies came by ship, and the partners never knew what goods would be available. The items Strauss and Stern bought included denim work pants or the fabric itself. Most of their goods were sold to miners, but as more families came to San Francisco, Strauss and Stern added clothing for women and children. Strauss occasionally left the city to sell goods to the small shops opening up near mining camps. He developed a reputation for selling quality goods at a fair price.
By 1861, Strauss had one of the most successful dry-goods businesses in San Francisco, and the firm continued to grow. Goods still came from the New York branch of the company, but Strauss also had items made on the West Coast, including pants. The first work pants he sold were made of canvas, but Strauss later switched to denim. He hired tailors to make the pants in their homes. The pants were just one of many products sold by Levi Strauss & Company.
During these years, Strauss lived with Fanny and David Stern. Dressed formally for work, he walked each day to his office. At the company, however, Strauss was not formal with his workers, insisting they call him Levi. Strauss was also becoming a leader in San Francisco's Jewish community. He joined an organization that helped needy Jews in the region, and he helped raise money to build a temple and a cemetery.
One of Strauss's customers was a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis. Like Strauss, Davis was a Jewish immigrant. In 1872, he sent Strauss a letter describing improvements he had made to denim pants; how he had made the seams stronger near the pockets and the fly. Davis also asked Strauss to pay for an application to patent the pants. By securing a patent, no other company could use Davis's design. Strauss could see that Davis had made valuable improvements, so he readily agreed. In 1873, his company sold its first pair of blue denim pants with rivets—the original Levi's blue jeans.
To make the pants that he called "waist high overalls," Strauss opened his first manufacturing plant, with Davis supervising the operation. The company also made denim jackets with rivets and later added work shirts to its line. Within a few years, the company had several hundred workers. Although Strauss also continued to sell wholesale dry goods, making and selling his own clothes eventually became the most successful part of his business.
As Levi Strauss & Company grew, the management changed. David Stern died in 1874, and his sons—Strauss's nephews—began entering the business and taking on more responsibilities. Strauss, however, continued to make major company decisions. Strauss's fortune also grew: an 1877 report said he was worth more than $4 million. This fortune included real estate as well as his share of Levi Strauss & Company. Other companies recognized his prominence, and Strauss was asked to sit on the board of directors of several area firms. He also served on the San Francisco Board of Trade, which promoted local products.
Even though Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss patented their riveted pants, competitors illegally copied the design. In 1874, Strauss filed the first of many lawsuits to stop other companies from copying his blue jeans.
During the 1890s, Strauss briefly turned his attention from clothes and invested in railroads. In 1891, he and other
With no children to run Levi Strauss & Company after his death, Levi Strauss left his business to his nephews, the Sterns. In 1919, Jacob Stern brought his son-in-law Walter Haas into the company. Haas became chief executive officer (CEO) in 1928, and he and his sons receive the credit for making Levi Strauss & Company a worldwide leader in the apparel industry.
Walter Haas Sr. was born in San Francisco in 1889. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1910 after majoring in business. After serving in the military during World War I (1914-18), Haas took a job at Levi Strauss & Company. Within a few years, Haas asked his brother-in-law, Daniel Koshland, to join the firm. The two men focused on ways to improve profits at the company.
Haas served as CEO until 1955, then remained as chairman of the board until 1970. He remained active in the company's affairs until his death in 1979. His sons, Walter j. and Peter, were also heavily involved in the company. Haas Jr., like his father, studied business at Berkeley. He thought about being a doctor, but Levi Strauss was still a small company when Haas left college in 1937, and he felt compelled to enter the family business. He attended Harvard Business School and then joined Levi Strauss as a stock boy. In 1958, he succeeded Daniel Koshland as CEO. With Haas jr. running the company, Levi Strauss began to grow tremendously. "I don't think anybody could have anticipated the jeans boom [of the 1960s]," he told Daily News Record. Haas Jr. stepped down as CEO in 1976, and his brother took over.
In 1980, Haas Jr. won the respect of San Francisco Bay area residents when he bought the Oakland A's baseball team. The team likely would have left Oakland if he had not stepped in. Haas Jr., like his father, was also famous for his generosity. Both men gave large sums to Berkeley; the business school there is named for Haas Sr. Both also started foundations to distribute some of their wealth to charitable causes. An obituary after the younger Haas's death in 1995 noted that that he often said his generosity was "in the genes."
Haas Jr.'s son Robert took over Levi Strauss & Company in 1984. He continued the family tradition of attending Berkeley and, like his father, graduated from the Harvard Business School. Haas also served in the Peace Corps and worked as a consultant before joining the family business in 1973. Under Robert Haas, Levi Strauss & Company saw its best year ever in 1996, when sales reached $7.1 billion. After that, however, sales fell, and in 1999 Haas brought in Philip Marineau, the former CEO of Pepsi North America (see PepsiCo, Inc. entry), to run the company. Marineau was only the second person without ties to Levi Strauss to run the company. Haas remained involved with the company as the chairman of the board.
San Francisco merchants wanted to open their own railway to combat the high prices charged by existing lines to ship goods. That plan failed. A few years later, Strauss invested $25,000 in another railroad plan. This time, the man behind the project sold all the shares to another railroad company, which then struck a deal with the existing firms that charged high fares. After that disappointment, Strauss gave up on railroads and stuck with the business he knew best.
In 1897, Strauss again turned to philanthropy, giving money to the University of California, Berkeley, to fund twenty-eight scholarships. Strauss realized that having a fortune brought with it a responsibility to share. In an 1895 interview quoted in Everyone Wears His Name, Strauss said that riches "do not cause happiness to their owners." Spreading the wealth, he believed, brought greater joy.
By 1902, illness began to slow down Strauss, and he took a vacation to try to restore his health. By fall, however, his condition worsened, and he died in his sleep during the night of September 26. His death made the headlines of local papers, and shopkeepers closed their businesses to attend his funeral. Today, the Levi Strauss & Company Web site notes that its founder was praised for "his broad and generous love for and sympathy with humanity." He also left behind his name on the pants that became an American classic decades after his death.
Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Levi Strauss: Everyone Wears His Name. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1990.
Emert, Carol. "Levi Strauss Hires New CEO from Outside Its Gene Pool." San Francisco Chronicle (September 8, 1999): p. Al.
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Marion, Peggy. "Walter Haas: Levi's Crusader." Daily News Record (November 7, 1983): p. 12.
Munk, Nina. "How Levi's Trashed a Great American Brand." Fortune (April 12, 1999): p. 82.
Norton, Justin M.. "Levi's Takes 'Low' Road with Soprano as Singer." Brandweek (June 18, 2001): p. 6.
Rhine, John. "Levi Rips the World's Oldest Jeans to Market." San Francisco Business Times (June 29, 2001): p. 6.
Sherman, Stratford. "Levi's As Ye Sew, So Shall Ye Reap." Fortune (May 17, 1997): p. 104.
Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley. [On-line] http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/haas/about.html (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Levi Strauss & Company. [On-line] http://www.levistrauss.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).