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Gibson Picks a New CEO to Steer It Out of the Blues

James Curleigh, president of Levi’s, will take the helm at the historic, but troubled, guitar brand

Levi's president JamesCurleigh will take the helm at Gibson next month.

Gibson is ready to reemergefrom the dark. On Tuesday, half a year after filing for bankruptcy and going through a complete restructuring, the Nashville guitar maker announced an all-new leadership team, led by James “JC” Curleigh, currently global president of clothing company Levi Strauss & Co. He will take over the company at the start of next month, joined by three other new senior executives — Cesar Gueikian as CMO, Kim Mattoon as CFO and Christian Schmitz as CPO — as well as Nat Zilkha, incoming chair of Gibson’s board of directors.

The storied company was forced to file for bankruptcy in the spring after its overly ambitious acquisition of a home and audio electronics business pushed it into $500 million of untenable debt. As part of its restructuring, Gibson Brands ceded control to investment firm KKR Credit Advisors, which will be the company’s majority owner when it emerges from bankruptcy protection on November 1st; Zilkha, a KKR executive, will represent the firm on Gibson’s board. As CEO, Curleigh says his first task will be to reinvigorate the company’s morale and get employees excited about refocusing around Gibson’s core business:high-quality musical instruments.

“Entering the company, the first thing I’d want to do is thank everyone for persevering through the obstacle course,” Curleigh tells Rolling Stone, referring to Gibson’s months-long bankruptcy and restructuring process. “And now, as a historic brand, let’s re-earn our leadership. I think of it like a car — there’s a reason the windshield is bigger than the rear view mirror in a car. You don’t want to keep looking at what’s behind you. Let’s make sure our rear view mirror is not bigger than the windshield.”

Curleigh, a musician himself (a press release notes that his latest addition is a Gibson 1960s J-45 acoustic), says he sees many parallels between the guitar maker and the famous denim clothing company he led for the last few years — namely, that the two are historic brands that “do best when they leverage their legacy” but also take time to explore new audiences. As head of the Levi’s brand, Curleigh guided the company’s strategy and grew its profitably every year.

He notes that Gibson will emerge on November 1st with an “entirely clean balance sheet” and the ability to start afresh, regrouping around its tried-and-true business of musical instrument-making. While Gibson may look at other products and avenues down the line, Curleigh says, the immediate task is growing the success of its guitars and other fretted instruments. Henry Juszkiewicz, who led Gibson from the 1980s until his exit this year amid the bankruptcy process, used similar language when he told Rolling Stone in May that, as the company restructured, it’d be able to “clean the slate” and “concentrate 100 percent of our energy into our competency in musical instruments” without distractions.

Gibson is not alone in pushing for a growth spurt. Fender, Gibson’s main competitor, is making an aggressive foray into new audiences with products outside of guitars themselves, including a subscription lessons program that has seen healthy growth since its launch. For the guitar business at large, the question that remains is whether audiences in the age of digital distraction have enough appetite for music-making as they used to — and, of course, which company will best stoke it.

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