FREEPORT, Maine — Back in the days before Gap, J. Crew or American Outfitters, there were guys like L.L. Bean.
In Maine a century ago, Leon Leonwood Bean found success without consumer research, focus groups or fashionistas to tell him what to sell. He sold only products that he personally used and tested. He backed them with a money-back satisfaction guarantee. And his larger-than-life personality was projected in his famous catalogs.
"The important part of L.L. was his personality. He was a hardy, enthusiastic, outgoing guy. He shouted most of his conversations because he was hard of hearing and assumed everyone else was, too," said his grandson, Leon Gorman, chairman of the board.
The retailer that celebrates the outdoors with Bean's Yankee sense of value is kicking off its 100th birthday celebration this week with the unveiling of a giant version of its iconic hunting boot set on four wheels. It'll be rolling into New York City on Wednesday.
The family-owned enterprise that started with Bean's hunting shoe in 1912 has grown into a business with $1.5 billion in projected sales in its 2011 fiscal year.
Along the way, the company has successfully expanded from a catalog retailer to an online retailer and a bricks-and-mortar retailer and has managed to create customer loyalty that's widely envied in the corporate world, said Kevin Lane Keller, a branding expert at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.
"They had an iconic catalog that they had figured out. Now they're having to look at other ways to sell," he said.
The company has recovered ground lost during the recession, but consumer confidence remains a concern as retailers continue to discount merchandise to entice consumers.
L.L.'s company got off to an inauspicious start.
Bean obtained a list of out-of-staters with Maine hunting licenses and sent mailings to his prospective customers, touting his hunting boot.
But 90 of the first 100 pairs sold in 1912 were returned after the leather separated; Bean had a satisfaction guarantee, so he returned customers' money, earning goodwill. He borrowed more money and enlisted a cobbler to make improvements.
Five years later, he opened a store in Freeport and never looked back.
Over the years, Bean added more hunting and fishing items, such as trout knives, axes, tents, sleeping bags, skis, snowshoes and a waterproof gun pouch. As Mr. Gorman said, "He liked what he sold, and he sold what he liked," so his catalog carried oddball items like Underwood Deviled Ham, horseshoes, and pipes and pipe tobacco.
Broadening its selection while keeping a reputation for reliability, the company has not only survived but thrived under Mr. Gorman, who took over when the founder died in 1967. Unlike his grandfather, the current chairman is reserved and soft-spoken, but he gets credit for modernizing the company, formalizing Bean's "customer-first" policies and creating the first computerized customer database.