Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

Levi’s Goes Public, With Jeans on the Trading Floor

For one day, the New York Stock Exchange was denim friendly.

Levi Strauss & Company, the company that traces its roots to the days of the California Gold Rush, started trading publicly on Thursday for the second time in its 165-year history.

Traders in New York were clad in denim pants and jean jackets, as the stock exchange suspended its prohibition on wearing jeans for the day. Levi’s also set up a “tailor shop” outside of the exchange where traders could personalize their denim.

The company’s shares, which were priced at $17 each, rose 32 percent in their first day of trading, ending the day at $22.41 and pushing Levi’s valuation above $8.5 billion.

“The floor looked awesome,” Charles V. Bergh, the company’s chief executive, said in a phone interview. “The irony is, there’s a sign when you walk onto the floor saying, ‘No jeans allowed.’”

Levi’s has been undergoing a turnaround for the better part of the past decade under Mr. Bergh, who joined the company in 2011. The company, based in San Francisco, has yet to return to its peak of the 1990s, but the executive has overseen an increase in sales to $5.6 billion last year, with net profit of $285 million.

[Being publicly traded is the latest chapter in the story of the 165-year-old company.]

“The job is not done, but this is a big step and acknowledgment of the progress that we’ve made,” Mr. Bergh said. “The vision I had was to be and be seen as the world’s best apparel company — and among the best companies in any industry — in part because that’s what the company was in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”

The company was founded by Levi Strauss, who immigrated to the United States from Bavaria and set up shop in San Francisco in 1853 with a wholesale dry goods business. Twenty years later, he and a business partner received a patent for “waist overalls” with metal rivets at points of strain — a garment known today as the blue jean.

The company first listed its shares in the 1970s, but was taken private in 1985 through a leveraged buyout led by descendants of Strauss, known as the Haas family. They wanted to take a longer-term view of the business rather than focus on short-term results and fluctuations. Strauss died without children in 1902 and left the company to his nephews. Family members have controlled the business ever since.

Mr. Bergh said that Levi’s chose to return to public markets because of the renewed strength of the brand and its growth potential in categories like women’s apparel and international markets like China. Last year, tops accounted for 20 percent of the company’s sales while women’s apparel rose to 29 percent of revenue.

He also said that investors had responded positively to the company’s reputation as one that would take a stand on social issues, like its decision in the 1990s to pull financial support from the Boy Scouts of America after the organization refused to admit gay members and leaders. In recent years, Mr. Bergh has attracted attention, some of it critical, for speaking out about gun violence and advocating gun control legislation.

“There’s an acknowledgment that today consumers are buying brands that represent a good value, but they also buy into brands and companies that share their values,” he said.

Levi’s raised more than $100 million from the offering, which it plans to use for general corporate purposes and possibly for acquisitions, according to its regulatory filings. Much of the offering’s proceeds will go to the Haas family.

Members of the Haas family, known for their donations to the University of California, Berkeley, where the business school carries the family name, will hold about 80 percent of the voting shares after the offering.

Levi’s showing on Thursday makes it one of the better performing recent I.P.O.s. Since the start of last year, shares of companies listing on American exchanges rose, on average, 14 percent during their first day of trading.

The recent debuts of retailers have received a mixed reaction from investors. Shares of Farfetch, which went public last year, jumped 42 percent during their first day of trading. The stocks of Canada Goose and Duluth also performed well, rising 26 percent and 14 percent. Stitch Fix, though, finished essentially flat and J.Jill was down 3 percent.

Stephen Grocer contributed reporting.

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