Orphaned at age 12, Leon L. Bean left school after completing the eighth grade and spent the next 30 or so years hunting and fishing in the backwoods of Maine. In 1912, dissatisfied with the footwear marketed to hunters, Bean designed his own boot with a leather upper and rubber bottom. According to company legend, the first 90 pairs he sold were returned as defective. Bean dispensed full refunds, borrowed $400, and launched a redesigned boot that became highly popular.
Based on his initial success, in 1917, Bean opened L.L. Bean headquarters on a tree-lined street in the town square of Freeport, ME. His employees called it “the factory.” It was three stories high with approximately 60,000 square feet of space. Customers entered through the back alley, climbed two flights of stairs, bypassed the salespeople (who, despite their friendliness, tended to know next to nothing about L.L. Bean products), and wandered through the stockrooms to find what they needed. Bean’s office was on the third floor and could be reached only by first passing through the mailing, stitching, and fly tying departments.
Bean was a skilled communicator and wrote compelling and authoritative descriptions of all products in his catalogs. Although employees loved their good-natured, down-home, and energetic leader, Bean could also be stubborn and capricious. He wasn’t bothered by the inefficiencies of his company; he refused, for example, to ever include an index to the catalog, despite thousands of requests from customers.
By the time Bean hired his grandson, Leon Gorman, in 1960, the company was behind the times and ill-equipped to survive – much less excel – in the rapidly competitive retail market. Hired at $80 a week as a gofer, Gorman spent seven years working his way through the ranks. He studied the market by reading competitors’ catalogs, visiting their stores, and reading at least three outdoor magazines a month. He began taking correspondence courses in business and finance administration. He assumed responsibility for responding to customer complaints and was the first person in the history of the company to attend retail trade shows. He carried a small notebook with him at all times. In his first year alone, he accumulated more than 400 notes on how to improve the company, from automating the customer service and inventory systems to holding semiannual sales of discounted merchandise to implementing training programs for employees.
At age 90, Leon Bean passed away, and Gorman’s father, Carl, who had also worked at the company, died just eight months later. Leon Gorman was elected president of the company in 1967. By 1972, all products had stock numbers. In 1974, Gorman opened a 110,000 square-feet distribution center with a logical layout that encouraged efficiency. The next year, he established a new customer-service department, where service was just as friendly and caring as ever but also disciplined and professional. Eight years after he took the helm, catalogs bulked up by 28 pages and went from 600 product offerings to 1,500. Catalog mailings went from 1.8 million to nearly 6 million.
The product lines also evolved to meet the changing face of customers. By 1980, half of all customers were women, but the company’s clothing line for women was simply resized from men’s designs and offered in pastels. L.L. Bean began implementing strategic designs and produced a catalog for women’s clothing only. The company also focused on the home and kids. It stepped up e-commerce and committed to making the L.L. Bean Website fast, simple, and informative.
“I think people in business can do noble things, just like doctors and educators and people in public service,” Gorman wrote. “Sure, we sell Bean Boots and backpacks and fleece jackets, but they enable people to enjoy the outdoors, and that adds value to their lives.”
Would the great Leon L. Bean have approved? “He’s probably spinning in his grave about some things,” Gorman admitted. “But otherwise, I think he’d be pleased that we made his name synonymous with good merchandise, the best service, and the outdoors.”