Canadian Musician - May/June 2021 - Page 42


By Michael Raine

When James “ JC ” Curleigh was hired as Gibson Brands ’ new president and CEO in 2018 , he was somewhat of a surprising choice to be the man who would save one of the most iconic guitar companies in the world from financial doom . Gibson was at a very low point in its history , as a number of ill-advised acquisitions and other decisions had left it $ 500 million in debt and bankrupt . On top

of that , it was also contending with a severely damaged reputation among dealers and guitarists . And so , by October 2018 , longtime CEO Henry Juszkiewicz was forced out of the company as part of its post-bankruptcy restructuring plan and a fresh leadership team was installed .
Leading that new executive group was Curleigh , who came to Gibson after years as the president of Levi Strauss – another iconic American brand , though in a very different market – and who also happened to be a passionate guitarist . For us , being Canadian Musician after all , we were also pleasantly surprised to find out he ’ s Canadian . In fact , he has three citizenships – American , British , and Canadian – though Nova Scotia is where he grew up and considers home . “ I ’ m more Canadian than most ,” he tells CM , explaining that his father was a helicopter pilot in the Canadian Navy and his grandfather was an officer in the North-West Mounted Police and RCMP . Curleigh himself has spent a third
of his life in each of the U . S ., Europe , and Canada , and attended St . Mary ’ s University in Halifax . Though what makes us most jealous is that he was in the arena when Sidney Crosby scored the “ golden goal ” at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver .
So , being the good Canadian that he is , when he found out we wanted to chat , he eagerly accepted the invite to discuss the current and future health of the guitar market . It ended up being a much longer chat than planned , so only a portion can fit on these pages . As such , the interview here has been edited for clarity and length . If you ’ d like to hear the full conversation – which includes Curleigh ’ s frank assessment of the company ’ s past business mistakes , quality control issues , and financial troubles ; what he did internally to fix the situation ; and much more – listen to the May 5 , 2021 , episode of the Canadian Musician Podcast .
CM : What do you recall about making the decision to leave Levi ’ s for Gibson ?
James “ JC ” Curleigh : You got to get Jimmy Rankin on the phone from The Rankin Family ! He ’ s one of my best friends and could tell you ….
So , I ’ m sitting there at Levi ’ s deciding and I had this opportunity to join Gibson . You know , I read about the bankruptcy and , as a musician and a lover of music , was like , “ Oh my god , how can this happen ?” I was the president of the Levi ’ s brand , and all of a sudden , in the summer I went back and I called them and they called me and said , “ Would you ever consider being the CEO of Gibson ?” It ’ s just one of those positive dilemmas in life . My passion was telling me one thing , but also Levi ’ s was about to do this IPO and all this crazy stuff in California .
Then , one August evening in Seabright , Nova Scotia , in our summer cottage , Jimmy Rankin came over and he says , “ Hey , I got a couple of guitars , let ’ s figure out a way to play tonight .” At about three in the morning , I ’ m playing one of his Gibson J-45s and I looked over and said , “ Jimmy , I got to tell you , I ’ m going to be the new CEO of Gibson .” He thought I was kidding , but I woke up the next day and made the call and said , “ I ’ m in .”
CM : Jeans and guitars are very different industries , though what Gibson and Levi ’ s have in common is that they ’ re both iconic American brands with a certain old school “ cool factor .” So , when making that transition , were there lessons that you learned at Levi ’ s that have proved useful at Gibson ?