SI Vault
John Skow
December 02, 1985
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
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December 02, 1985

Using The Old Bean

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

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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.

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