President of Levi's
Interview with James Curleigh (SMU alumnus, President of Levi’s)
James Curleigh’s amazing career in business leadership, brand building, and international experience has taken him around the world — from London to Portland to San Francisco, where he’s worked on building brands such as M&M’s, Salomon Sports, and Taylormade Golf — but he’s never forgotten his roots. Originally from Halifax, James chose to study at Saint Mary’s because he saw the potential of a small campus that was (almost literally) right in his own backyard.
We sat down with James to chat about his career and how his time at SMU helped to, as he put it, “set the conditions” for his success.
Levi’s must be an amazing company to work for. It’s such a recognizable brand. Tell us a little bit about your role there.
I’ve been at Levi’s for exactly three years now. As global president of the Levi’s brand, I’m responsible for setting the strategic direction from vision through to execution. I am focused on leveraging our iconic brand and creating new innovation solutions for the future. For about 15 or 20 years, Levi’s was really suffering from a blurred vision. Now I think we have a very compelling vision, centered on lifestyle leadership.
What are some of the biggest contributions you’ve made to Levi’s over the last few years?
When I first got to Levi’s, I knew I wanted to get us thinking of ourselves as a startup. A 150-year-old startup. By startup, I mean I wanted to draw on the heritage and legacy of the brand while also thinking about how to innovate for the future. For a startup, tomorrow is always more important than yesterday. And that’s the cultural dynamic I’ve been trying to drive into Levi’s.
Since arriving in 2012, we have grown the business every year and we have set the conditions for success to continue to grow. We’ve re-engineered iconic products like the 501 jean, and we’ve created brand new products like the Levi’s commuter series for cyclists. Not to mention the recent launch of our new Women’s denim collection.
What are you especially proud of?
Denim takes up about six or seven percent of the average person’s closet. So while Levi’s may be the worldwide leader in denim, that still means they’re only the worldwide leader in six percent of the closet. So one of my real goals was to help us grow our share of the closet.
Overall I’ve been really focused on how to protect our core and expand for more. We set up an innovation lab three blocks from our headquarters in San Francisco called the Eureka Innovation Lab to drive new lifestyle innovations. To hit the ‘center of culture’ for sports and music, we launched Levi’s stadium in 2014, which is now home to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Even more exciting was the announcement of Super Bowl ‘50’ at Levi’s Stadium in 2016.
It sounds like innovation is something you’ve always been focused on. Where do you think that commitment to innovation and advancement comes from?
I think it comes from a few different places. My family is from Halifax originally, but we grew up all over the world. We had the chance through my dad — who was a Canadian Navy helicopter pilot — to live in the States, in Europe, and then here in Halifax. When you grow up around the world, you end up looking at things differently. You learn things like diversity and innovation as you go. But then there comes a point when you need the skill level and confidence to be able to package it.
And that’s where Saint Mary’s comes in?
Exactly. Enter Saint Mary’s, and a relevant academic experience. When you grow up somewhere, often you think there must be something better out there. But sometimes the better out there is actually right in front of you. Sometimes the best things can happen right where you are. The house our family lived in was actually right behind Saint Mary’s. But going to school there wasn’t just a convenient choice; it was a considered choice.
Was there anything specifically that drew you to SMU?
I remember Saint Mary’s had an emerging reputation in their Bachelor of Commerce program. Since I knew exactly what I wanted to do — international marketing and business — it was the right choice for me.
For me, it’s not so much the school you select, but how you can create real synergy between the school you select and your own learning style. I selected Saint Mary’s because I believed it would help me set the conditions for my success… and it did! It’s the experience you have and the choices you make that matter.
What did you study?
I took a Bachelor of Commerce with a double major in Marketing and Management. I knew I wanted to continue on a global journey, but I needed the confidence to compete. It was clear to me very early that you’re not just competing with people around you; you’re competing with a global set. What I found at Saint Mary’s is that I was able to really apply what I was learning out in the world.
What were some of the most memorable things about your SMU experience?
There were two big things that stood out for me at Saint Mary’s. First, it was the Business Communications class I took. My professor was convinced that no matter what you learned in your other classes, if you couldn’t communicate it then it didn’t matter. And I really got that. I really understood that if you want to connect as a leader, you need the confidence to communicate in a compelling way. To this day, I still apply some of the thinking I learned in that class. I give a lot of presentations, and whether I’m on a TED Talk stage or presenting at a conference or a school, I think back to what I learned at SMU.
The other stand-out was the progressive educational and entrepreneurial environment I was a part of at Saint Mary’s. I’ll give you an example. In 1987, Saint Mary’s convinced Apple Computers to set up one of the first networked education platforms for the MAC 2SE on the SMU campus. Very few universities had access to a networked PC environment at that time. It seems basic by today’s standards, but it demonstrates the innovation DNA of Saint Mary’s University.
What advice would you give to a prospective student?
You don’t need a big campus to have a big experience. In other words, sometimes going somewhere small allows you to think big. Saint Mary’s gives you access to an entire world and those formative four years can set up the next 40 years of your life. I can honestly say that Saint Mary’s set the conditions for my success and I am proud to be an extension of the entire SMU family.