Business

$2.5 billion blue jeans fortune emerges for Haas family with Levi's IPO plan

Bloomberg

Levi’s are proving an enduring wardrobe investment for the descendants of the inventor of blue jeans.

The Haas family, which traces its lineage to company founder Levi Strauss, owns almost 59 percent of the San Francisco-based apparel maker that filed for an initial public offering on Wednesday. The firm is said to be valued at $5 billion, according to CNBC, giving the family a combined net worth of at least $2.5 billion.

Bavarian-born Strauss emigrated to New York in 1848 and was soon lured to San Francisco by the California Gold Rush. Failing to find much gold, he started a West Coast branch of his brothers’ wholesale dry goods business and called it Levi Strauss & Co. One day he received a letter from a customer, a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis, who’d started designing pants with rivets to make them last longer. He needed a business partner and Strauss was eager to collaborate.

The patent for the first pair of blue jeans was granted to the partners in 1873. When Strauss died unmarried and childless in 1902, the bulk of his $6 million estate (worth $175 million in today’s dollars) passed to his four nephews and other relatives.

His nephews carried on the business, rebuilding it from scratch after the firm’s headquarters and factory were destroyed by the deadly 1906 earthquake and fire. They also oversaw the release of its first product for women, “Freedom-Alls,” in 1918.

But it wasn’t until after World War II that Levi’s gained renown as a fashion product, having gotten a boost in global exposure from U.S. soldiers sporting the brand. Western movies and Hollywood stars like James Dean further burnished its fashion cred, making the rugged pants a cultural touchstone of the Baby Boom era.

The company’s biggest individual shareholder is Mimi Haas, with a 16.7 percent stake, according to a prospectus. She’s a vice chair of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the widow of Levi Strauss’s grandnephew by marriage, Peter Haas Sr., who worked at the family business for 60 years until his death in 2005. He and his brother, Walter, succeeded their father, Walter Sr., in running the business in the 1940s and helped oversee the first IPO in 1971. The family orchestrated a leveraged buyout 14 years later after revenue and profits sagged.

Other major shareholders of the business include Peter Haas’s son, Peter Jr., and daughter Margaret, cousin Robert Haas and family members Daniel and Jennifer Haas.

A Levi’s spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The family are longtime donors to the University of California, Berkeley, whose business school is named for them, and have been active philanthropists in the Bay Area since the days of Levi Strauss.