A Mild Mannered Maverick Puts His Brand On Levi's

Bob Haas is not what you would call a firebrand. The 52-year-old executive doesn't fill up the room with his charisma. His mild manner, his deferential bearing, even his tall, gangly frame make him eminently approachable. He hardly seems the type to instigate broad cultural change within a major American corporation.

Walter A. Haas Jr., in fact, figured his cerebral son would more likely become a college professor than join the family business. And oftentimes, the younger Haas's philosophical management approach does have the whiff of academe. A favorite tutorial is on egoless leadership: "The notion of the CEO as hero, as all-wise, as having all the answers" is sorely outmoded, Haas says. "I was raised on two principles: First, it's important to be modest and humble. Second, let actions speak for you, rather than tell people what they should do."

Even Haas admits his family ties lend special import to both his actions and his words. "I'm not so naive as to believe my word is valued equally with the word of any other person in this company," he says. But the Haas scion also brings to the CEO office a long, liberal tradition of inclusionary management and corporate responsibility. His grandfather, Walter Sr., who married into the Levi Strauss family, offered English and citizenship classes to factory workers in the 1920s. His father and his uncle Peter, who ran Levi's from the 1940s to the 1970s, were among the first to integrate factories in the South.

BOUNTIFUL CROP. Haas recalls frequent dinner table discussions during which his father would pointedly celebrate an immigrant janitor or a hardworking warehouseman. "He made clear they were little in stature but giant in their capabilities," Haas says. Bob began to test his own voice on matters of equality and empowerment at the University of California at Berkeley. As the valedictorian of the class of 1964, Haas drew a front-page headline in the San Francisco Examiner: "A Student Scolds UC at Rites." He chided the institution for being "too impersonal" and his professors for being "remote and unapproachable."

Haas joined the Peace Corps after college but felt even that organization was sometimes too detached. In the Ivory Coast, Haas says, he watched foreign-aid workers from the U.S. and Western Europe teach the native population everything from English to auto mechanics in air-conditioned classrooms. "It was never clear to me they made much of a difference," he says. A group of Taiwanese, however, said nothing to anyone while planting a couple acres with rice to produce a bountiful crop. The local people silently observed the Taiwanese technique and ended up adopting it. "That's the approach we're taking," Haas says. "We're letting people figure out for themselves what it is they want. If it's important to them, they'll plant rice on their own."

From Africa, Haas went to Harvard University to earn an MBA and then served as a White House Fellow in the Johnson Administration. In 1969, he moved back to San Francisco as a McKinsey & Co. consultant, where he set himself apart for being outspoken with clients on such topics as the environment. In 1973, at the age of 31, he decided to join the family business. A year later, he married Colleen Gershon, who was an attorney for the Black Panther Party when they met.

By the time Haas became Levi's CEO in 1984, the company had become bloated and bureaucratic. Its rich cash flow made it prime takeover bait. Instead of becoming a target, Haas decided to saddle the company with $1.6 billion in debt and take it private in a 1985 leveraged buyout. The high-risk move required him to ax 6,000 jobs while closing 26 plants. But it also allowed him to put in place his idealistic management architecture. Since then, Levi's profits have shaved the debt.

Haas, who lives near San Francisco with Colleen and their 15-year-old daughter, Elise, doesn't seem bothered by the paradox he embodies: His democratic approach might be possible only because its prime proponent is a dynastic prince whose family controls 94% of the company. "It's difficult to bring these ideas into any company," notes Levi's President Thomas W. Tusher. "I don't know that another company would have given him the opportunity." To Bob Haas, what matters is that he make the most of the opportunity he has been given.

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