From So-Cal Surfer to Brussels Exec: Meet Seth Ellison

Levi Strauss & Co.
February 12, 2014

UNZIPPED: What is your role at Levi Strauss & Co.?

SETH ELLISON: I represent our Europe region on the Worldwide Leadership Team for Levi Strauss & Co. I’m responsible for making the most of the opportunity for the Levi’s® and Dockers® brands in Europe—driving the results, making sure we’re elevating the brands to reach their full potential, competing in each of the key local markets. It’s all about Levi Strauss Europe contributing to the company’s overall business and financial goals.

Our team is responsible for approximately 50 different country markets, including the European Union as well as emerging markets such as Eastern Europe, Russia, the former Soviet Republics and Turkey.

How did you first get into the apparel industry?

I really fell into this industry. When my college days ended, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was holding down two jobs as a lifeguard and a bartender. Honestly, I was having a tremendous amount of fun, but I had no major plans regarding my future. What do you want to do when you grow up was complete white space. I had an uncle who owned a small surf company—over the years, he’d given my brothers and I a lot of cool surf clothes—and at one point, he just said, “Why don’t you come work for me and learn the surf apparel business?”

So I started at the very bottom. I worked in the warehouse. I worked the cutting tables, made swatch cards. I ran errands, washed the company cars. I worked in planning, sourcing, and worked for the sales manager. Over time, I started to take on larger merchandising roles. Then, eventually, I did a two-year stint in outside sales as a typical road warrior. Eventually, I landed in general management, which is where I play today.

My college roommate turned out to be a very successful attorney. For about the first seven years of our careers, I would have traded places with him in a heartbeat. While he was doing really well, I was literally eating grilled cheese sandwiches every night because I was broke and my mom sent me big blocks of cheese each month. But after that seven-year period, once I was in the thick of the apparel industry, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. He seemed bored with his career choice, and I found an industry focused on youth culture, I was able to use my right and left brain, and every season was a new adventure. Ever since, I haven’t looked back or really had any time to be bored.

What’s the most exciting part of living in Brussels and working at LS&Co. in Europe?

A "more corporate" image of Seth.

A “more corporate” image of Seth.

If you’re someone who enjoys and thrives in a job where every day is different, it doesn’t get better than this; there is so much variety and multitasking. You have to drive strategy, execution, brand positioning, financials; watch competitors, consumers and customers, wholesale, retail, ecommerce, men’s, women’s, Levi’s®, Dockers®. And you get to work with a diverse team from different cultures and countries who have different skill sets and levels of experience. This might drive some people crazy, but for me it’s energizing.

But you have to remember that this isn’t the United States of Europe; this region is a collection of individual countries, each with its own history and local nuances. It’s really interesting when you look at our Levi’s® position here in Europe—we compete against very different brands in the top five for each market, and that highlights these differences. In one country, we compete with traditional denim brands, verticals in another market, premium brands or local brands in another. But the interesting part is that the only common denominator in each of the key markets is Levi Strauss & Co. So for both of our brands to lead in each market, we have to leverage global commonality while at the same time staying locally relevant—an exciting challenge.

And as for Brussels, it’s a very interesting place for a European HQ. You’ve got this incredible dual culture between the French and the Flemish, and it’s a city with a long and proud heritage—a beautiful city—so to be able to work here is something very unique and special.

How do you think your journey from working with surf apparel to corporate retail has helped to inform your current role at LS&Co.?

First of all, I think I have an advantage that I started at the bottom. I realize and appreciate what every single employee adds to a company’s success—and if you don’t appreciate, motivate and earn the respect to lead, you end up with gaps in your ability to really serve the wholesale customer and the individual consumer.

One of the things my uncle told me when I first joined the apparel industry was that every season is a whole new game. It’s a chance for you to be better, avoid past mistakes, learn new tricks—but if you’re not careful, it’s also a chance for you to fall out of favor with the consumer and customer. And if you do have a bad season, the next one will have to be something great. I’m also glad I’m not in the news business where every day is a whole new game. Once a season is enough for me.

I’ve been fortunate enough to both assemble and be a part of some truly special teams. I’ve been lucky enough to play key roles in helping build some of the world’s great global brands. As I get older, I appreciate these opportunities more than ever. That’s one of the exciting things about working for LS&Co. and in Europe—I have two of the most beloved brands in the industry to work with; this talented leadership team representing geographies and functions; and when you can harness all of this brainpower and passion, it’s just an incredible feeling as a leader.

What was it like serving as president of Dockers®?

Before I joined the company and stepped into the Dockers® president role, I remember noticing more and more influencers in Southern California endorsing Dockers® and saying Dockers® makes the best khakis. I just kept hearing it from people who, I thought at the time, would never wear the old Dockers® that I envisioned. The Alpha Khaki was connecting with a new generation. I’d go into places like Nordstrom and American Rag, and I remember noting how this Dockers® phenomenon had snuck up on me, and how the brand was experiencing an incredible resurgence. I’ll always be grateful to Anne (Anne Rohosy, president of Levi Strauss Americas) who called to ask if I was interested in joining LS&Co. as the Dockers® president. She convinced me to go out and buy a pair of K1’s and Alpha Khakis, wear them around and then come up to San Francisco to meet the company leaders. I was hooked. And what a cool challenge: serving both a traditional consumer who was buying Dockers® for years and connecting the brand to a new generation experiencing it for the first time; working for a company that’s been around for more than 160 years and invented the blue jean, as well as launched a khaki revolution; and working with a talented group of leaders who I knew I’d enjoy.

What do you think tends to be the most unique and special qualities of Levi Strauss & Co. employees?

We have an incredible amount of talent and experience in place. We have a combination of employees that have been with the company for 15 to 20 years, combined with a lot of up-and-coming talent who’ve recently joined the company.

One of the interesting things for me is that everyone has a brand connection, everybody here has a Levi’s® story. My story? When I was in high school, my parents couldn’t afford for me to wear Levi’s®, so all I wanted for Christmas one year was that very first pair. Later, when I worked on launching a denim line for Quiksilver in the early ’90s, our customers told us to not waste our time because surfers only wore Levi’s®. So Levi Strauss was pretty special to me growing up.

Besides the fact that we each have our Levi’s® story, I also believe the company’s heritage and values are a strong magnet that attracts the right type of people. Employees here really do want to do the right thing, whether it’s building the brands, the business, the community — really, all of the above.

What advice would you have for aspiring professionals in the apparel industry?

The thing about the apparel industry is that it really offers you an incredible right-brain/left-brain opportunity. As long as you stay consumer- and customer-focused, you’ll be fine. But there will be many evil forces that are going to pull you away from this North Star, coaxing you to start falling in love with the process. The consumer has to stay your primary focus—and not just giving the consumer what they want today, but also anticipating what they’re going to want in the future. That’s where the real success comes in.

I’m not a rookie any longer, and I look back fondly on my time in this industry. I wish, in the rush of business every single day, that I’d taken more time out to really enjoy the talented people I’ve worked with, the projects we were working on, spent more time enjoying the ride. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Just wish I could have slowed things down a bit. Maybe I can still figure that out.

From your vantage point, what do you think the future holds for LS&Co.?

It’s always hard to say that our best years are ahead when a company is more than 160 years old and has had a lot of great years. But even so, I think we definitely have more great years ahead, maybe the best. Certainly the best in recent history. We have two brands that are recognized and loved around the world. We have a chance to rebuild upon that heritage and take this company through a bit of a renaissance again.

So, do you still surf?

(Laughs) When I was in the surf industry, I didn’t like to admit that I surfed because I worked with so many incredible surfers. I think the last time I surfed was probably five years ago, in Maui with my sons, and it was an exception. But I do snowboard every year, and I’m still incredibly passionate about snowboarding. That’s my chance to feel 18 again, although I usually pay for it the next day. I may be a little sore when I wake up in the morning, but it’s still a great time.