Haas, Peter Edgar

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Haas, Peter Edgar

(b. 20 December 1918 in San Francisco, California; d. 3 December 2005 in San Francisco, California), billionaire former president and chairman of Levi Strauss & Co. who was a philanthropist, civic leader, and dedicated advocate of social justice and corporate social responsibility.

Haas was born in San Francisco in 1918, the second of three children of Walter A. Hass, Sr., and Elise (Stern) Haas, a well-known patron of the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. His father, like his maternal grandfather and great-granduncle, Levi Strauss, served as president of Levi Strauss & Co., the jeans company founded in 1853. As youths, Haas and his siblings were imbued with a deep sense of the importance of community service, compassion, and generosity. Reflecting on the attitude of his parents, Haas once commented, “If we had money... it was really not ours alone. It was our obligation to use it wisely to help others.” Haas’s family also cherished education, and he accordingly achieved a distinguished academic and athletic record at the schools he attended.

In 1933 Haas entered Galileo High School, in San Francisco. Two years later he transferred to Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts, where he served as captain of his school’s football team. He graduated from Deerfield in 1936 and then, following in his father’s footsteps, pursued undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he initially studied engineering but later switched to economics. Haas treasured his time at Berkeley and came to be one of the institution’s most generous benefactors.

After graduating from Berkeley with an AB in 1940, Haas, unlike his older brother, Walter A. Haas, Jr., did not immediately join Levi Strauss & Co. Instead, he first accepted work at an advertising agency in San Francisco. In 1941, eager to fight in World War II but thwarted by poor eyesight, Haas entered Harvard Business School. Becoming a distinguished Baker Scholar, he graduated cum laude with an MBA in 1943 and immediately began working as a riveter for the defense contractor Stearman-Hammond Aircraft. Although he stayed at the company only through the end of the war, Haas believed that his stint at Hammond was invaluable in affording him the opportunity to learn about relations between management and line workers. There, Haas met his future wife, Josephine Baum. They married in 1945 and had three children before divorcing.

In 1945, at age twenty-seven, Haas finally entered the family jeans business, based in San Francisco. At the time, his father, uncle, and older brother were all active in management. As was the family custom, Haas did not immediately commence work at the Battery Street headquarters; rather, he first undertook an apprenticeship at the Valencia Street factory. He emerged from that experience with an intimate understanding of the production process as well as a heightened awareness of and appreciation for the various roles performed by employees.

Transitioning to headquarters, Haas was given responsibilities in production, distribution, finance, accounting, data processing, and quality control; his brother, meanwhile, focused on merchandising, marketing, and corporate planning. By the 1950s the Haas brothers were increasingly managing the company, with their father and uncle gradually ceding control. Determined to capitalize on the jeans craze that was gaining momentum, the Haas brothers began to expand the company’s manufacturing plants in the South as well as abroad. On the domestic front, segregation was still widely practiced by many southern companies; however, instead of likewise adhering to such practices, Peter Haas, with his brother’s full support, determined that all Levi Strauss factories, in the South as in the North, would be fully integrated, with African Americans assured equal status. Eager to receive the economic stimulus of new factories, local officials conceded to Haas’s demands.

Noting the Haas brothers’ successful expansion and forward vision, Time magazine in 1953 pronounced Peter and Walter Haas, Jr., their Leaders of Tomorrow. Accolades came from others as well, including politicians. Impressed by his commitment to equal opportunity, the San Francisco mayor George Christopher appointed Haas to the city’s Fair Employment Practices Commission. Haas proudly dedicated himself to this as well as to a host of other civic and charitable groups, including United Way and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, conceived in 1952 by his parents.

In 1958 Peter Haas was named executive vice president, while Walter became president. Over the course of the next three decades, the Haas brothers would cooperatively alternate titles and exchange responsibilities. From 1970 to 1981 Peter Haas served as president, while Walter served as chairman of the board. By 1971, after more than a decade of their joint leadership, Levi Strauss & Co. had evolved into a formidable global presence, with annual sales of $405 million and operations in fifty countries, as supported by almost 20,000 employees. Encouraged, Haas decided to take the company public (although it has since been resecured as private). One consideration that factored into Haas’s decision was a desire to reward the loyalty of employees who had faithfully purchased company stock. He delighted in the knowledge that going public resulted in several workers, including a mail-room clerk, suddenly becoming rich.

The company’s initial public offering directly led to the naming, for the first time, of a chief executive officer (CEO), as investment bankers insisted that the ultimate source of leadership be clear. While Walter and Peter viewed each other as equal partners, Walter, in fact, became the company’s first CEO. According to company lore, Walter gained the position simply by virtue of being older, by three years. Six years later, in 1976, Peter Haas became CEO.

In August 1981 Haas married Miriam (“Mimi”) Lurie, gaining two stepchildren. Also that year, he ascended to the position of chairman of the board, which he would retain for the next eight years. In 1989 Haas also became chairman of Levi Strauss & Co.’s executive committee, a position he retained until his death. Among the many awards Haas received during his long life for his charitable work, three of the most cherished were from the University of California, Berkeley. He received the school’s top honor, the Berkeley Medal, along with the title Alumnus of the Year, in 1996; the Berkeley Foundation Chancellor’s Award in 1997; and the title Business Leader of the Year and the Life Achievement Award from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 2001. Haas was a lifelong fan of University of California sports, and the day before he died he had planned to attend a school game, as he often did. On 3 December 2005, at the age of eighty-six, Haas died of natural causes. The memorial service was held at Temple Emanu-El, in San Francisco.

Although he was not originally intent on joining the family business, Haas ultimately shepherded Levi Strauss & Co. through six decades of growth, from 1945 to 2005. Collaborating with his brother, Haas built the Levi’s brand into a highly recognizable name and the company into a global powerhouse. Moreover, through his ethical leadership decisions, such as insisting on desegregation in all the company’s factories in the 1950s, Haas fostered a climate conducive to the dispersion of his own and the company’s core values: empathy, originality, integrity, and courage.

The Levi Strauss & Co. website, at http://www.levistrauss.com/news/pressrelease.asp?r=0&c=1&cat=0&pr=760&area=, provides a thorough biography of Haas in a posthumous news release (4 Dec. 2005). Obituaries are in the San Francisco Chronicle (5 Dec. 2005) and New York Times (6 Dec. 2005).

Janice M. Traflet