Though Leon Leonwood Bean barely had an eighth grade education, he mastered the golden rule of retailing: Sell good merchandise and treat the customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more.
Bean, the legendary hunting boot purveyor who founded Freeport, ME-based apparel, sporting gear, and home goods catalog L.L. Bean, used his simple philosophy to guide the company through prosperity, hard times, expansion into retail, and competition “from just about everyone,” said Leon Gorman, chairman, former president, and grandson of founder L.L. Bean at a Barnes & Noble Business Breakfast Series discussion on Oct. 5.
Gorman is the author of “L.L. Bean: The Making of An American Icon,” a 336-page book first-person account of his rise through the company and how it grew into one of country’s enduring brands. The company grew 17% annually for 40 years. From 1960 to 2001, Bean’s sales went from $2.25 million to $1.2 billion. And Gorman figures that the now $1.5 billion company reinvented itself at least nine times during that period. During the 8 a.m. book signing at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on New York’s 5th Ave., Gorman noted, “You don’t grow like that without making some changes.”
Perhaps the biggest change has been the intense channel competition. “Retailers were starting catalogs, catalogs got into retail, and everybody was jumping into everyone’ else’s channels,” Gorman said. L.L. Bean, which mailed its first four-page catalog in 1912 to names rented from the Maine State Hunting Commission, is in other channels as well: It launched its Website in 1995 and opened its first non-outlet store in 2000 in Virginia. Today it has about five full-price stores primarily in the Northeast, but in the next few years L.L. Bean will ramp up its retail rollout to 25 stores.
Bean has come a long way from its early days, but its success all goes back to the founder’s commitment to integrity, guaranteed satisfaction, and quality merchandise. L.L. Bean was such a force that when he passes away in 1967 at age 94, the company wasn’t sure if it should publicize his death. “There was the perception among customers that Leon himself personally tended to each order,” Gorman said, and company officials figured that perception would quickly erode if its customers knew the founder had passed away. “We thought maybe we should keep [his death] quiet,” Gorman says, “until news of his death got 11 minutes on the highly rated Huntley-Brinkley news show.”