When you talk about iconic American companies with deep roots, a few names pop to mind:

  • Procter & Gamble (dating back to 1837)
  • Citigroup and JPMorganChase (arguably going back to 1812 and 1799, respectively)
  • Macy's (founded 1858)

Then, there's my personal favorite: Berkshire Hathaway, which, long before Warren Buffett bought it, was founded as a textile mill in my hometown in Rhode Island back in 1839.

But this week marks a milestone for another iconic company, nearly as old, which filed an initial public offering prospectus on Monday: Levi Strauss & Co. (It announced its plans last month.)

As you probably learned in grade school, the company dates back to a dry goods store that its eponymous founder opened in San Francisco in 1853. 

This will be the second IPO for Levi's--the company took itself private back in 1985--and there are some fascinating takeaways if you have time to study the company.

How rare is a company that has made variations of the same product for a century and a half, and yet figured out how to innovate, build a brand, and distribute products through one revolution after another?

The prospectus alone offers some insights, as Anna Hensel at Digiday points out, and they're interesting both in the context of the long history of Levi's and the challenges faced by any business trying to sell physical products. I'm talking about things like:

  • Whether you're better off trying to wholesale your product, or sell direct to customers. 
  • How almost every consumer manufacturer is at least now partially beholden to Amazon.
  • The big "down payment" required if you want to try to sell direct to consumers. (Levi's increased its advertising 23.8 percent from 2017 to 2018.)
  • How to sell similar products at different price points to different customers. (Levi's has big partnerships with Walmart and Target, but it's also producing more "prestigious" jeans and clothing for sale at its own stores and higher-priced retailers.)
  • How there's no such thing as neutral for companies in this age of hyper-partisanship and social media. ("Call it the Nike effect," Hensel writes. "Brands now know that they will eventually be called to take a position" on social issues.)

Even if your business is a lot smaller (Levi's had $285 million profit on $5.6 billion in revenue last year), I think there's a lot to be learned by looking at the history of companies that have been around forever. Levi's IPO presents a great opportunity to do just that. 

Fun fact: I'm actually wearing Levi's right now. Anyway, here's what else I'm reading today:

Published on: Mar 12, 2019
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