L.L. Bean was born in 1912, when Leon L. Bean (who was orphaned at age 12 and left school after completing the eighth grade) designed his own boot with a leather upper and rubber bottom. According to company legend, the first 90 shipments came back defective. Bean dispensed full refunds, borrowed $400, and launched a redesigned boot that became highly popular.
In 1917 Bean opened L.L. Bean headquarters on a tree-lined street in the town square of Freeport, Maine. Customers entered through the back alley, huffed and puffed up two flights of stairs, bypassed the salespeople (who, despite their good-natured friendliness, tended to know next to nothing about L.L. Bean products), and wandered through the stockrooms to find what they needed.
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 the catalogs of competitors, 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 semi-annual sales of discounted merchandise, to implementing employee training programs.
At age 90, Leon Bean passed away, and Gorman’s father, Carl, who had also worked at the company, died just eight months later. Elected president in 1967, Leon Gorman’s goal was to “run the perfect company.” By 1972, all products had stock numbers. In 1974, Gorman opened a 110,000 square-foot 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 was 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. They began implementing strategic designs and in the ’90s came out with a women’s-only catalog. They also focused on the growing areas of home and kids. They stepped up their e-commerce and committed to making the L.L. Bean Website fast, simple, and informative.
After more than 33 years of leadership as President and CEO of L.L. Bean, Leon Gorman left his role as Chairman in May of last year. Under Gorman’s leadership the company grew from a $2.5 million retailer selling through the mail with a single store in Freeport to an over $1 billion multi-channel marketer with over 5,000 employees and an iconic brand known throughout the world.