Back in 1912, Leon Leonwood Bean (left) began his mail-order business with a boot that was returned by 90 of the first 100 buyers. Today, L.L.'s brainchild does $280 million in sales
December 02, 1985

Leon Leonwood Bean, the country slicker and demon merchandiser who founded the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, used to brush aside suggestions for expanding his business with a Down East nifty: "I'm eating three meals a day now, and I can't eat four." That was intensely exasperating to his grandson Leon Gorman, a young man just getting a feel for the family business. This was back in the early '60s, when L.L., who was born in 1872, was a very old man, and the catalog house he started more or less by accident in 1912 had fallen into a profound snooze.

Gorman was right to be worried. The average age of the employees in the store, he says now, was something like 67. L.L. was a humane employer and he never fired anyone, but he also was a tightfisted State-of-Mainer—minimum wage plus a nickel was his wage policy—who regarded company retirement programs as a gross extravagance. Thus no one retired. Ancient clerks filling catalog orders during the pre-Christmas rush ambled slowly into the systemless confusion of the stockroom, passed the time of day with each other, deliberated about deer hunts and gall-bladder operations and the weather, past and present, and eventually returned with a chamois shirt or a pair of Maine Hunting Shoes, or the news that the required item was out of stock, or maybe misplaced.

All of that has changed. L.L. Bean, the modern corporation, eats four meals a day. Gorman, now 51, is president. The company has a good retirement policy and pays good wages, for Maine. Sales last year were $253.7 million and are expected to reach $280 million to $290 million for '85. Growth seems to have steadied, after several roller-coaster years, at a healthy 12%. Some 68 million catalogs are mailed each year. Outside Gorman's office this fall, concrete was being poured and steel bolted for another expansion of Bean's huge distribution center in Freeport. Half a mile away, the Bean retail store, which looks like a ski lodge, is vast and prosperous. A sizable trout pool is the centerpiece of its main floor, but the place is so busy the fish are easy to miss.

The two million people who come here every year make Bean's the state's second-biggest tourist attraction, after the Atlantic Ocean, but ahead of Moose-head Lake and Mount Katahdin. On a normal day through the spring, summer and fall, parking lots at the retail store fill by 10:30 a.m., and customers are directed to satellite lots maintained by Bean a couple of blocks away.

Freeport, an old shoe-factory town that once had a comfortable, old-shoe shabbiness to it, has been transformed by L.L. Bean's stupendous popularity into a theme park for shoppers. Dozens of outlet stores along the main street, all New Englandy in neat clapboards and carved wooden signs with gold letters, feed to satiation on the spillover from the Bean store. Frye Boots, Ethel! Hathaway, O mistress mine! Dansk! Sweaterville! And look, the heart leapeth up, Ralph Lauren! A free jitney bus that looks something like a San Francisco cable car percolates around town. McDonald's is so discreet that it is hard to find, but it's there.

What old L.L. would have made of this is uncertain. "Money," a compulsive truth-teller might answer. Sure, although from all accounts, three meals a day really were enough for this very shrewd old gent, just as long as about half of those days in his later years could be spent fishing in places like Florida. But L.L. died in 1967, at 94, and his attitudes were firmly in place before World War I. One of his shotguns, an old Parker 20-gauge, hangs on the wall of Gorman's neat office. But it is outlandish to imagine him sitting in his grandson's chair as president of L.L. Bean, Inc. in the mid-1980s, and having to deal with the corporate problems that are now basic stuff to every CEO in the nation. Can a healthy company simply stay at its present size, selling a good product at a good price, without growing? In L.L.'s world, why not? In Gorman's, the idea is absurd.

The singularity here is not so much that Bean under Gorman has had its operations brought up to date, and has positioned itself—we may as well speak corporatese—to run smoothly through the remainder of the century. A lot of medium-sized businesses have overcome similar problems after a founding entrepreneur has died or faltered. What sets L.L. Bean apart is something quite different from ordinary good management. Everyone seems to love L.L. Bean. At least those of us who are customers do. It is as if Bean were family, some sort of mildly eccentric but amiable uncle who lives up in Maine and sends us packages.

Yes, Sears sends us packages, and so do Eddie Bauer, Lands' End, Recreational Equipment, Inc., Brookstone, International Mountain Equipment, Orvis and so many others that if the tons of catalogs they mail only burned a little better, a householder in the snow belt would not have to split cordwood. Bean is just one of five or six firms I deal with. Over the last few months I have bought a good bench saw from Sears, an excellent pair of lightweight Raichle hiking shoes from REI, and some polypropylene expedition longies, no complaints, from IME. I have no emotional involvement whatsoever with these outfits. But Bean is another matter.

Mine is by no means the only mushy smile visible when Bean is mentioned. People send family photos to L.L. Bean, generally showing themselves proudly wearing some Bean garment. They chat on the phone to Bean, mentioning, perhaps, that they are thinking of sending their teenagers to Outward Bound, because you know how kids are these days, and does Bean's customer service rep think this is a good idea? He or she does. What sort of equipment would the kid need? Bean has a list, and can supply the stuff. Well, thanks, the customer will say, grateful for this pastoral counseling, you've really been a big help.

A few months ago a man called from California to ask for suggestions about names for his 8-week-old brindle Scottie. He had no catalog purchase in mind, and clearly he did not feel that his relationship with Bean necessarily had to involve matters of commerce. He got results, too; the customer service department deliberated and called him back, offering Drambuie, Chivas Regal, Wee Willie, Bonnie Prince Charlie and—since it was not clear that the pup was male—Blue Belle of Scotland.

Last New Year's Eve, at about 6 p.m., two men and one woman walked into the store and, operating with the precision of a guerrilla team, committed matrimony on the landing of the main stairway. The woman and one of the men pledged to love and honor each other, while the other man, a justice of the peace, pronounced them husband and wife. They left to the cheers of customers and clerks.

Presumably most of this loosely focused goodwill is traceable, in one way or another, to L.L. himself. What is odd about this is that, as far as a listener can determine now, L.L. was a decent enough fellow, but by no means cuddly, by no means a lovable old coot. The sense is that he kept his distance emotionally from other people, a habit that in Maine is considered prudent and normal. The distance between L.L. and his customers, however, turned out to be precisely right, so that an astonishing spark of respect and friendliness could pass in both directions. This electrical current first began to alternate in 1912. Much later Leon Gorman wrote of his grandfather. "To hear that one of his products failed was a genuine shock to his system. He'd charge around the factory trying to find an explanation. Then he'd write the customer, return his money, enclose a gift, invite him fishing or do anything to make the matter right. That customer was a real person to L.L."

What happened in 1912 was that L.L., then 39 and a partner in a small and sleepy dry-goods store in Freeport run by his brother Ervin, decided to go into the mail-order business. Before this, he had sold soap and worked in a creamery without piling up either money or renown. Now he had a new product to sell, one of his own invention. The year before, vexed by chronically wet feet on deer hunts, he had hit on the notion of sewing lightweight, comfortable leather uppers to the rubber bottoms of ordinary galoshes. A local shoemaker had made up a pair for him, and he had tried the shoes out. They kept his feet dry, so he ordered a few more pairs and sold some of them in his brother's store.

L.L. said later that his first mail-order list came from Maine hunting licenses. He wrote and mailed out copies of a flier selling what he called the Maine Hunting Shoe. The flier's prose was pure L.L., as distinctive as early Hemingway: "Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped Maine woods for the past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of a heavy hunting boot. The vamps are made of the very best gum rubber money will buy...."

The Bean prose style was to reach its peak decades later in the ad that ran year after year for the wondrous Heavy-Duty Belt: "A fancy dress belt looks out of place on heavy hunting pants. Made of high grade genuine cowhide with a brass-plated buckle." But all of the elements were there in that initial hunting-shoe puff—from the firm, friendly advice to the insecure city tourist who, L.L. clearly understood, secretly dreaded showing up with the wrong hunting gear, to the forthright huckster's boast about superior materials. L.L. did not just mail his fliers and wait for the money to roll in. He sent follow-up letters. One F.N. Sawyer of Wakefield, Mass. received a note typed on the blank reverse side of the hunting-shoe flier. "Dear Sir," it began, "Recently I sent you a circular of my Maine Hunting Shoe. As I have not received your order I take the liberty of again calling your attention to my shoe. I am receiving so many compliments from all over the states that I am sure the shoe would please you and am willing to send you a pair on approval."

The truth was that the Maine Hunting Shoe was a flop, and L.L. was receiving little but complaints. Some 90 of the first 100 pairs were sent back by customers, or so went the story that Bean himself told, because the stitching that held the leather tops pulled out of the soft rubber bottoms. He had guaranteed each pair, however, and he scraped up enough money to turn 90 angry customers into 90 citizens impressed with his honesty. He borrowed more capital, persuaded the U.S. Rubber Co. of Boston to manufacture soles that would not separate from the uppers, sent out more fliers and was off at a gallop toward destiny. The new soles remained faithfully married to their uppers, and the "sports" (as city people who come to Maine to hunt, fish and paddle canoes were, and still are, called) happily sent in their orders.

In 1917 L.L. moved his growing operation from the basement of brother Ervin's dry-goods store to a building across the street and added hand-knit stockings to his line. By 1924 he employed 25 people at an average wage of $25 a week, and yearly sales had reached $135,000. He was shipping out hunting shoes, which were made to seem finer and more up to date in each successive catalog—"The 1923 Maine Hunting Shoe," "The 1924 Maine Hunting Shoe," and so on. But what he was selling, he seemed to understand instinctively, was the absolute, unqualified reliability of L.L. Bean. The guarantee was and still is unconditional. You can send back a Bean product for any reason at any time, and get a replacement or your money back. Wear it a year, decide that it is not holding up and send it back. The guarantee still holds.

Hear this from Ken Stone, coach of the U.S. white-water canoeing team. Years ago, he said, he bought an inexpensive fishing rod from L.L. Bean. He used it for several seasons, and then snapped off the tip by slamming a car door on it. He took it to the Freeport store, explained what had happened, not failing to mention the car door, and asked if he could buy a replacement tip. He got one, for no charge, and used the rod for another few years. Then a friend borrowed it, tripped while climbing down a steep riverbank and again broke the tip off. This time the Freeport store had no replacement tip; the rod was too old. The clerk told Stone to pick out a new rod. Stone explained that the break could not be blamed on Bean or the manufacturer. "It doesn't matter," said the clerk. "There's no charge. Bean stands behind its products."

Full disclosure: When he said this, Stone was under contract to L.L. Bean to make an instructional videotape on white-water canoeing techniques. But it was clear that he did not tell the story to please Bean but simply because the subject of Bean had come up. It was his Bean story, and like most of us who have one, he had been telling it for years.

Those unlucky buyers of the first poorly made hunting shoes no doubt told similar Bean stories after L.L. sent their money back, and so the customer list grew. The reputation Bean was developing was not just for honesty and straightforward products, but for a kind of quirky thriftiness that made customers grin and think, "That's Maine for you." Don't throw away your worn-out hunting shoes, L.L. advised. Send them back and we will sew on brand new bottoms, with new eyelets and laces, for $3.10, or $3.30 for the style with heels. This was genius at work. The reason that customers had worn-out hunting shoes was that gum rubber is very soft and not especially durable. L.L. turned this flaw into unbeatable word-of-mouth advertising.

No item was too piffling for the Bean treatment. In the fall 1926 book, he boasted that his bootlaces were "the result of several seasons of experimenting to produce a perfect lace for high-cut shoes and moccasins. These laces are not rawhide with weak places, but are hand-cut from high grade selected leather. Every lace is hand-tested and guaranteed 100% perfect." The laces went for 100 for eight-inch shoes and 26¢ for 16-inch shoes. Even in 1926 the profit on such transactions could not have justified the catalog space given to them. But L.L. knew what he was doing. The message here was that Bean took pains to make the smallest details perfect.

Some of Bean's offerings, it must be admitted, were completely gaga, though even these seemed only to add to L.L.'s reputation. In Search of L.L. Bean, the graceful and entertaining history of the company by The Boston Globe outdoor writer M.R. Montgomery, notes some rubber long Johns that L.L. tried out, no doubt after being soaked on a deer-hunting trip. In the fall of 1933, a Depression year and thus a time for thrift, L.L. suggested that for only $2.85, moccasin bottoms could be sewn to the uppers of rubber-bottomed hunting shoes for the upland bird season, and then, before deer-hunting began, the same boot could be returned to Freeport for reconversion to rubber for another $2.85.

In the same catalog, however, L.L. promoted an alltime winner, the Bean chamois shirt, at $2.15. "This is the shirt I personally use on all my hunting and fishing trips," he advised his congregation. It was, he said, "the best value in a shirt we have ever offered." True enough. Last year an elderly widow sent a 50-year-old red chamois shirt back to Bean's, not for a refund, but because she thought the firm might like to see how good it still was. Chamois shirts, like blue jeans and violins, mellow with age, and while Bean did not invent them, neither did Johnny Appleseed invent apples. The Freeport store spread them around the country and saw them sprout in other companies' mail-order catalogs.

That sort of competition was decades in the future in 1951, the year L.L. made his last major contribution to Bean's reputation for vivid eccentricity. Weary of being awakened at his home in Freeport by hunters and fishermen who were driving through town late at night and needed a few articles from the store, he made the sort of decision that would have driven an accountant to distraction. It might have been reasonable to keep the place open to 10 p.m., say, on Friday and Saturday nights. But no, L.L. was not in a mood to fool around with halfway measures or hard-to-remember schedules. He did not ponder unduly over cost effectiveness. He simply decided that L.L. Bean would never close.

To this day it has not, except for L.L.'s funeral. When a major remodeling of L.L.'s old white-frame store was undertaken in 1976, no locks were fitted to the front door. You can stroll through the place at 4 a.m. on Christmas, and more than a few people do.

The oddly personal loyalty that L.L.'s customers felt for the store and its eccentric owner might have been expected to disappear like morning dew after the old man's death. The store was running on inertia, says Gorman, who took over as president in 1967 when he was 32. Much of what the catalog offered was outdated, and quality had slipped. The store itself was old and shabby; inventory control was a matter of guess and hunch; shipping was slow and disorganized; sales figures had flattened. Gorman's preparation for running a business consisted of a B.A. in government from Bowdoin College and four years in the Navy, supplemented by some night courses in business after he had signed on in 1960 as the only college graduate working for L.L. Bean. "I was green as grass," he says now, shaking his head at the memory.

Gorman in his middle years is a lean, reserved man, polite and thoughtful in manner. He is not a storyteller or speechifier, and he will never be a beloved old Maine character even if he runs the company till he is 94. An outsider gets the impression of considerable intelligence, doggedly applied. He was not much of a sportsman when he took over, he admits. Did L.L. ever take him hunting? "Only once," Gorman says. But sport, like marketing techniques, was part of what the new company president had to learn. He did learn and now is a bicyclist, a bird shooter and an enthusiastic cross-country skier—though it's as sure as Halley's Comet that you will never read, in some future Bean catalog, "These are the skis and poles that Mr. Gorman himself uses in his conditioning runs...."

The business that Gorman took over in 1967 was essentially a turn-of-the-century dry-goods store with a hunting and fishing department and, somewhere out back, a shoe factory whose artisans also made duffel bags and red suspenders. How Gorman rebuilt this creaky structure as a sizable modern corporation still recognizable as L.L. Bean has been a case study three times for the Harvard Business School and has been cited in textbooks, as well as in A Passion for Excellence by Tom Peters (coauthor of In Search of Excellence) and Nancy Austin, as an example of superior executive practice.

The company now has the look and feel of institutional strength. Bill End, Gorman's 36-year-old second in command, sits at his clean desk looking, though only from the shinbones up, as it turns out, like the alert young Harvard MBA that he is—his shirtsleeves are buttoned and his tie pinned. He answers questions easily. No, Bean should not expand by starting a chain of retail stores. Retailing on a nationwide scale is a tough business and not Bean's specialty. "We should stick to what we know," he says.

He sounds very corporate indeed, until he is asked about his own sporting interests. Then he jacks one leg above desk level, revealing an enormous Danner Yukon cold-weather hunting boot. He is breaking these monsters in, he says, for a bighorn-sheep hunting trip in British Columbia he has scheduled in 10 days. Furthermore, he says, he has just returned from a fly-fishing trip to Alaska, and he expects to be in Ontario for the opening of the duck and goose season.

The company encourages active sports participation, he says, and any Bean exec can get an extra week's vacation to do product testing, an activity that includes checking out Danner Yukon Boots in British Columbia.

It is not just management that gets out in the field. Clerks in the canoe department, as you would expect, can tell you from experience the relative advantages of a square-ended or a beaver-tail paddle. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the lecturer at a free public slide show on fall bird migration is Dan Nickerson, a hand sewer of shoes in the Bean shop. He is a skilled amateur ornithologist who spent 4½ weeks this year helping to make an atlas of bird-breeding sites in the outback of northwestern Ontario, on an expedition partly sponsored by Bean. The company puts on about 100 clinics a year in Freeport on such subjects as bird-dog handling and winter camping, and most of them draw on the specialized knowledge of Bean employees.

Obviously a firm like L.L. Bean would be expected to attract workers who enjoy hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports that don't involve throwing a ball around. But now something more than natural selection is going on. In the past couple of years Bean's commitment to outdoor sports has reached a level so intense as to almost suggest Caspar Weinberger brooding about the Soviets.

What alarmed the Bean management, from Gorman on down, was a fluky wave of prosperity that began in 1980. That was the year when Lisa Birnbach came out with The Official Preppy Handbook, a wickedly accurate satire on the feeding, mating and dress habits of the Eastern private school set. If you were a preppy, the handbook explained, you wore a lot of gear from L.L. Bean: hunting shoes, chinos, Norwegian sweaters and so on. As a result of the book, Bean was flooded with unexpected orders. Everyone wanted to be a preppy and treated Birnbach's joke book as if it really were a handbook. It was hard to get into Phillips Andover, but it was easy to order boating moccasins and a down vest from Bean's. For a while it seemed that the fad would not die until everyone in the country was fully Beaned—from trooper cap to gum-soled loungers.

The company's sales grew crazily in 1981 and '82, then nearly stopped growing in '83. By this time Gorman had realized that Bean was in danger of being seen by its new customers not as a sporting-goods dealer, but as last year's fashion house. Bean's re-dedication to sports began forthwith. Pushed by Gorman, product-development man Ned Kitchel developed a line of Bean bicycles, with light aluminum frames built by a U.S. firm called Cannondale. Hunting and fishing product development manager Scott Sanford, a 32-year-old U of Southern Maine grad, reviewed Bean's fishing-rod line and installed a $200 graphite fly rod, high for Bean. Bill End describes testing a line of Spanish shotguns being considered for Bean's house label. After 10 days of shooting, he said, "not one of the five guns we bought was still functioning." Bean chose an Italian manufacturer. Fishing rods and shotguns don't add much to Bean's bottom line. What they do is give Bean the opportunity to sell chamois shirts and Baxter State Parkas to customers who value shooting and fishing. Stone's instructional tape on white-water canoeing and three others that Bean will market on fly-fishing, bicycling and outdoor photography are as much statements as products, and the statement is that Bean knows the outdoors.

In the meantime, the world of L.L. Bean goes on 24 hours a day: 100 order-takers in Portland, 12 miles from Freeport, reassure callers panicked by the looming specter of Christmas. Shoemaker Nickerson, working with an awl in each hand, stitches the right toe of a pair of size 8 men's premium beefroll loungers and perhaps thinks about the tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird that is known to fly from the U.S. to South America in 85 hours without stopping. Laboratory technician Merv Wyman is 3½ hours into an eight-hour test of a sample of down insulation that requires him to separate every fiber with a pair of tweezers. And customer service rep John Noone is speaking soothingly on the phone to a man in Florida who says, grumpily, that he has just received notice that the shirt he ordered for his son's birthday is out of stock. Does Bean have the same thing in yellow? Noone calls up the man's transaction on his computer terminal, sees that a refund check has already been sent, then makes sure that the store has a yellow tennis shirt in the right size, and says yes. The trouble is, the man gripes, his son's birthday is five days away, and there isn't time for him to send another personal check to Bean. That's O.K., says Noone, just send back our refund check when you get it; we're not worried. He marks the delivery as Federal Express, no charge, thereby turning Bean's profit on a $16 item into quite a loss. The customer says, "Well, uh, that's fine," sounding surprised to find that he is no longer grumpy. "I've been dealing with you for a long time." Noone thanks him, says goodby and hangs up. In a moment the red light on his phone is glowing again.

On this same fall day or one just like it, Rod Lane, 29, an assistant product manager for Bean, and Erika Hadley, 25, one of the firm's computer operators, are standing on a rocky shore in Freeport overlooking Casco Bay. The sun is shining. The sea is calm. The dollar is steady against major European currencies.

A photographer crouches and twiddles. An art director calls out directions. Lane and Hadley, impeccably Beaned in New Balance light hiking shoes, unwrinkled stretch chinos and plaid shirts just out of the box, are posing for a spring catalog. They seem slightly ill at ease, as if they feel silly having all this attention paid to them. They are good-looking people—he is tall and light-haired, she is slim and dark—but it is easy to see that they are not professional models. They look, in fact, like people from an L.L. Bean catalog. L.L. himself was his own model, the cheapest available, in the early catalogs.

Bean now publishes some 20 different catalogs a year, counting the four large seasonal books of 136 pages each that are sent to regular customers. The catalog art is sent to be digitalized on tape, composed into pages on CRT consoles and beamed to the printers by satellite—in an operation that begins in Freeport, continues in Warsaw, Ind. and is completed in Spartanburg, S.C. The expense of professional models would not add much to what all of this costs, but Gorman, very much his grandfather's grandson, clearly feels that the cleft-chinned men and the hearty, glorious women from the modeling agencies still would not look right.

By tradition, Bean's models not only look like real people, that is exactly what they are. The cheerful, imperfect faces in the catalogs are those of company employees and, in one recent instance, of Bill End's English setter, Rémy, a real dog. After Rémy made his appearance, looking jaunty on a Hollofil-stuffed, plaid dog bed, one Bean customer called in to say, Never mind the bed, where could he find such a dog?

No such stardom is likely for Lane or Hadley, because as it happens their photo will be cropped, showing only their snappy chinos, 97% cotton/3% Lycra spandex, which "look like your old favorites but provide a superior and comfortable nonbinding fit." Better luck next time, when one or the other may get to pose in some upper-body garment that usually has a head sticking out, such as a hand-knit Icelandic sweater or a camouflage mackinaw. In the meantime, the phones in the order department ring steadily. All of which suggests that L.L.'s 73-year-old bright idea is still in good hands.

THREE PHOTOSGEORGE STROCK/LIFEIn 1941, L.L. Bean fit into rooms above the post office, where the boss entertained his grandsons and, as often as not, personally waited on happy pilgrims who came to see him.
PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEL.L.'s grandson Leon Gorman gets a boot out of being head of a thriving corporation. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEL.L. Bean's homey quarters of yore have been replaced by a huge, never-closed store. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGETwo million people journey to Freeport every year to select Bean's merchandise. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEIf the printed flier didn't sell boots, L.L. would make a personal pitch. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEChamois shirts: new (left), 50 years old (right). PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEMaine hunting shoes: new (left) and a vintage model turned out by Bean in 1918. PHOTOLANE STEWART[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY L.L. BEANPersonalized—often eccentric—"foot art" occasionally accompanies orders from catalog customers for Bean's array of footwear. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEWyman tests down insulation, and Nickerson hand-stitches shoes in the Bean factory. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEAn army of telephone operators takes calls from customers as Christmas approaches. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEBean's distribution center is stuffed with stuff to be stuffed in customers' mailboxes. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEBean serves both old hunters and young preppies. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEEnd, Soule and Gorman have made Bean a company admired by MBAs everywhere. PHOTOCOURTESY L.L. BEAN TWELVE PHOTOS

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