James ‘JC’ Curleigh was recently announced as the new CEO of Gibson Brands, replacing Henry Juszkiewicz.
Curleigh joins the guitar giant after spending the majority of his career at leading apparel and sportswear companies, most recently as the president of global brands at Levi Strauss. But just who is James Curleigh, and what steered him from clothes to guitars?
Mars bars and work boots
One of Curleigh’s earliest roles was working on brand marketing and strategic planning at confectionary titan Mars. There, he famously convinced the family-owned business to sponsor the 1992 Summer Olympics, in Barcelona, timing the move to coincide with the relaunch of Snickers.
That brush with the Olympics ignited a long love affair with sports marketing.
Four years after Linford Christie won the gold for the 100m dash, Curleigh left the candy-coloured world of Mars for the alpine slopes of Salomon. He re-envisioned the ski company as a “freedom action sports” brand, climbing from managing director of the UK office to the president and CEO of North America in four years – with a two-year stint at TaylorMade, a Salomon subsidiary at the time, in-between.
The alum of Harvard’s and Stanford’s business schools then joined KEEN in 2008 as its president and CEO. The Portland-based footwear startup was experiencing a period of massive growth at the time: When Curleigh was appointed, KEEN’s estimated annual sales revenue stood at around $130 to $140 million. By the end of 2011, that figure would leap to $240 million.
And then, in 2012, Levi’s rang him up.
Taking a heritage brand to the modern age
The call was a chance one, but it led to a dinner appointment with Levi’s senior leadership – and that blossomed into a full-fledged role. Curleigh would be responsible for leading the Levi’s brand globally as its president.
His pitch on that initial phone call will resonate with longtime Gibson fans. “You have to take that authenticity, heritage and the starting point of making jeans, and then focus on the future,” he recounted to Forbes. “You have to focus on the future more than the past. That’s what a 150-year-old startup would do.” Gibson, to put into context, is 116 years old.
One of Curleigh’s most successful strategies was to broker a balance between Levi’s core customers, what he terms ‘lapsed fans’, and would-be fans. He emboldened the brand with the mantra “Blue jeans. Music. Sports. Entertainment. Fans.” He opened a 20,000-square-foot facility to study the art of denim dyes. He married quality of material and construction with modern silhouettes. He even renamed the San Francisco 49ers’ homeground the “Levi’s Stadium”. And it all worked. The final full year of Curleigh’s tenure, 2017, was also Levi Strauss’ strongest revenue showing in a decade.