Beginnings: 1911 to 1959In 1911, an avid outdoorsman named Leon Leonwood (L.L.) Bean returned from a hunting trip with cold, damp feet and a revolutionary idea. L.L. enlisted a local cobbler to stitch leather uppers to workmen’s rubber boots, creating a comfortable, functional boot for exploring the Maine woods. This innovative boot – the Maine Hunting Shoe® – changed outdoor footwear forever and began one of the most successful family-run businesses in the country.
L.L. began his business in the basement of his brother’s apparel shop. In 1912, he obtained a mailing list of nonresident Maine hunting license holders and prepared a three-page flyer that boldly proclaimed, “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 the Maine woods for the last 18 years. We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way.” The public could not resist the commonsense logic and genuine enthusiasm of his appeal.
One hundred orders came in for his new product. However, L.L. did not meet with immediate success. The rubber bottoms separated from the leather tops and 90 of those first 100 pairs were returned. Although it nearly put him out of business, L.L. kept his word and refunded the purchase price. He borrowed more money, corrected the problem and, with undiminished confidence, mailed more brochures. L.L. had learned the value of personally testing his products, of honest advertising based on firm convictions and of keeping the customer satisfied at any cost.
Customers spread the word of L.L.Bean’s quality and service. L.L. built on his success, using all company profits for advertising. He was so intent on building his mailing list that Maine writer and Freeport resident John Gould was inspired to say, “If you drop in just to shake his hand, you get home to find his catalog in your mailbox.”
L.L. focused on the essentials: high-quality products backed by excellent service. Leon Gorman, grandson of L.L. and company president from 1967 to 2001, said, “Word-of-mouth advertising and customer satisfaction were critical to L.L.’s way of thinking. To hear that one of his products failed was a genuine shock to his system. That customer was a real person to L.L. and he’d put his trust in the L.L.Bean catalog.”
When L.L. Bean started his company, his view of serving the customer was as revolutionary as his product. He said, “A customer is the most important person ever in this office – in person or by mail.” Whether seeking expert advice, purchasing goods, returning or exchanging anything from L.L.Bean, customers quickly learned that L.L.Bean wasn’t like other companies of the day. L.L. set the standard for customer service in 1912 and his service-based philosophy is a fundamental belief that resonates throughout the company today.
With automobiles increasing in popularity and becoming more affordable throughout the 1920s, more people visited Maine to enjoy some of the finest recreational areas in the nation. L.L. continued to attract hunting, camping and fly-fishing customers with his trusted advice and commonsense approach. In a 1927 catalog he said, “It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish. We have done that experimenting for you.”
Steady growth continued. By 1934, the company had increased its factory size to over 13,000 square feet. The simple flyer evolved into a 52-page catalog. The company generated over 70% of the volume for the Freeport post office. By 1937, sales surpassed the $1 million mark. Leon Gorman noted decades later, “The most important legacy of L.L.’s genius was the power of his personality. It transcended the buying and selling of products. His personal charisma based on down-home honesty, a true love for the outdoors and a genuine enthusiasm for people, inspired all who worked for him and attracted a fanatic loyalty among his customers.”
L.L. never missed an opportunity to improve service. While the bulk of sales were generated by the catalog, hunters and visitors frequently dropped by Freeport. A night bell allowed the late-night visitor to call a watchman or even L.L. himself. In 1951, L.L. opened the store 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, proclaiming, “We have thrown away the keys to the place.” To this day, there are no locks on the doors of the flagship store in Freeport.
A Time of Growth: 1960 to 1999As disposable incomes went up and the interstate highway system made travel easier, L.L.Bean aligned itself with the growing outdoor recreation market. The “Back to Nature” movement brought a boom in backpacking and camping that also brought more business to the L.L.Bean catalog and store.
Leon Gorman joined the company in 1961. According to Leon, L.L. had “established an image that was as broad in its appeal and as enduring in its acceptance as any in marketing history.” Despite this, significant challenges lay ahead. When he first came to work at L.L.Bean in 1961, the average employee age was 60 and sales had leveled off at around $2 million.
In 1967, Leon Leonwood Bean passed away at the age of 94. Some of those closest to the company wondered if it could go on without L.L.’s strong influence. Fifty thousand letters of condolence from customers all over the country poured into Freeport, noting the accomplishments of the man TIME Magazine once hailed as “The Merchant of the Maine Woods.” The overwhelming public response helped bolster employees’ determination to build on L.L.’s success.
Leon Gorman took over as company president in 1967 and led the company’s transition into a modern, world-class organization. He formalized the company’s customer service approach and updated compensation policies. The mailing list was computerized. Manufacturing moved to an updated facility and a new 310,000-square-foot distribution facility was built. Credit card services were introduced in 1976. And the first full-color catalog was mailed in 1979.
Rapid growth and expansion continued into the 1980s, with the addition of fitness centers, walking trails and Maine sporting camps for employees to enjoy. In 1985, a toll-free phone number and customer contact centers were added. As L.L.Bean celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1987, the company employed almost 2,000 year-round workers and another 1,000 during its peak season.
In 1988, L.L.Bean opened the first of its outlet stores. The following year brought a 40,000-square-foot addition to the flagship store in Freeport and a new manufacturing facility with ergonomically designed systems.
In 1992, the company expanded its international business presence to include a store in Japan. And in 1995, L.L.Bean began its growth into the electronic commerce market by launching llbean.com.
2000 to TodayIn 2001, with the company’s success as his legacy, Leon Gorman assumed the role of Chairman of the Board, passing the company leadership to the first nonfamily member ever to hold the position. He named Chris McCormick, who joined the company in 1983, President and CEO, and a new era of growth began.
In 2000, L.L.Bean extended its retail store presence beyond Maine for the first time. Today, it operates 27 retail stores outside of Maine – spanning as far south as Virginia and as far west as Colorado – with more store locations on the way.
L.L.Bean’s e-commerce business has also seen tremendous growth, with online sales surpassing phone orders for the first time in 2010.
Also in 2010, L.L.Bean launched L.L.Bean Signature, a heritage-inspired collection featuring modern styles in streamlined fits, including updated pieces from the company archives.
In 2011, L.L.Bean looked to its heritage again – this time reintroducing free shipping, which the company had offered from 1912 to 1991. With no minimum order, end date or codes, the goal was to make the benefit simple and permanent.
Maintaining the same high level of service for customers – however and wherever they choose to shop – has made L.L.Bean an omnichannel retail leader. Awards received from 2010 to 2015 include:
- Stella Service Awards for Overall Service, Best Phone Service and Best Email Service
- Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For®
- Forbes magazine’s Best Employers in the US
- Brand Keys’ list of America’s most patriotic brands
- Foresee Answers’ list of top brands for web shopping customer satisfaction
- Hubspot’s #1 ranking for corporate Facebook pages
- Multichannel Merchant’s Excellence in Brand Communication Award
- Harris Poll Reputation Quotient rankings for corporate reputation
In 2013, during L.L.Bean’s 101st year in business, Shawn Gorman – great grandson of company founder L.L. – replaced Leon Gorman as L.L.Bean’s Chairman of the Board. Leon was named Chairman Emeritus and remained an active member of the Board until his passing in 2015.
On November 3, 2015, Stephen Smith was named the fourth President and CEO of L.L.Bean, upon Chris McCormick’s retirement.