Gorman, Leon. L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon. Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
Don’t let the cute colour painting of a pair of Maine Hunting Shoes on the dust jacket fool you. This is a business biography, emphasis on business. It tells the story of the L.L. Bean mail order and retail merchandising company as seen by Leon Gorman, who propelled the business from a $4.7 million enterprise in 1967 to $1+ billion in sales by the time he transitioned from company president to Chairman in 2001.
The preface and first 56 pages are a history of L.L. Bean the business, starting with its 1912 origin as a manufacturer and mail order merchant of the iconic rubber/leather Maine Hunting Shoe invented by the author’s grandfather, Leon L. Bean. L.L. Bean the man, was born the son of a Maine horse trader in 1872, orphaned at age 12, and left school after the eighth grade to do manual labor and hunt and fish in Maine’s woods. L.L.’s genius, after inventing his famous boot, was to sell products he wanted to buy himself. He used a self-authored catalog to give customers, mostly city folks, a connection to the rustic, outdoor life of the Maine woods- even if they were just buying a sandwich knife.
In 1967, Mr. Bean, well into his 90s, passed away with his hand still firmly on the helm of the business. Almost immediately thereafter, L.L.’s son, Carl Bean, second in command under his father, also passed away. Consequently, L.L. Bean’s grandson, Leon Gorman, a Colby College graduate who joined the company in 1960 after a three-year stint as a Navy officer, became head of the family business. Thus ends the book’s first section.
The remaining 240 pages offer a surprisingly detailed account of the decade-by-decade trek Leon Gorman lead his company on, through the thickets of image maintenance, merchandising decisions, catalog and mailing list strategies, warehouse construction, customer service training, adoption and abandonment of corporate management techniques with names like The Best and Total Quality, comings and goings of senior managers and choices about things like building an L.L. Bean presence in Japan and opening retail flagship stores outside Maine. (As an aside, I’ve been fortunate enough to frequent L.L. Bean’s Freeport, ME store on numerous occasions. On one visit, I recall my father pointing out a handwritten note tacked to a door leading from the store to the stockrooms which read, “Keep this damn door shut! -LL Bean.”)
Gorman’s main challenge was to grow the much larger and more profitable casual clothing side of the business without losing the company’s unique heritage associated with serious outdoor clothing and equipment. The story is told from Leon’s perspective, peppered with anecdotes and somewhat – but not very – different perspectives extracted from interviews with former and current employees and senior managers. As both an educated business person and a loyal L.L. Bean customer, I reveled in this composition. Mr. Gorman writes most of it with a clear, fast moving style; with the turning of every page, I was continually inspired to press forward and keep reading.
Mr. Gorman’s genius was twofold. First, he never abandoned his grandfather’s core philosophy to, “sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit [and to] treat your customers like human beings.” He instilled that philosophy by personal example and by hiring managers inclined to believe it as well. Second, he refused to walk away from the heritage of being a trusted provider of serious outdoor equipment, equipment which could stand up to four-seasons of use in the forests and mountains of Maine, or anywhere else. Gorman realized that L.L. Bean’s sustainable differential advantage – or “brand” – was inextricably linked to its credibility as an expert provider of active outdoor equipment and clothing. He realized that many customers would eventually abandon the company if they concluded there was no substance behind the mere outdoor image. So, although the outdoor side of the business was less profitable and demonstrated far less growth potential than its retail fashion counterpart, Gorman insisted that his managers aggressively market the hunting, fishing and camping gear as a way to force preservation of a real heritage. This met with almost instantaneous success and, as such, Leon preserved both his grandfather’s business and his grandfather’s legacy.
Mr. Gorman ends the story in 2001, the same year he retired as President to become L.L. Bean’s Chairman. For reasons still unexplained, at that time, no member of his immediate or extended family held a senior position in the company. Leon thus spent two years consulting with advisors, working out a plan to retain family ownership while simultaneously turning management over to Chris McCormick, a much younger non-family L.L. Bean colleague. L.L. Bean met with some difficulty under the early days of McCormick’s leadership. Sales growth stagnated and even dipped, coinciding with the post-9/11 national economic downturn. Within a short time, however, the upward profit swing reinitiated and, as of 2005, L.L. Bean resumed a heavy retail store strategy focus, bolstering the profits even more.
The book has sixteen pages of photos of important characters and L.L. Bean heritage, a useful index, footnotes of sources cited and a brief bibliography. The end papers have black and white reproductions of LL Bean catalog covers from the 1960’s-2001.
I recommended this work primarily to those seriously interested in business history, strategy development, and mail order or retail merchandising. A secondary recommendation goes to LL Bean fans, but they had best prepare themselves for much discussion around return of equity, mailing list management, etc. Readers will do well to remember that the book was published by Harvard Business School Press.
Immediately upon finishing the book, I placed a call to L.L. Bean to secure a new pair of Maine Hunting Shoes. Ever loyal to tradition, they were paid for, of course, with my L.L. Bean credit card.