- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

FREEPORT, Maine — When L.L. Bean died in 1967 at 94, his family flirted briefly with the idea of hushing up the news for fear that it might destroy the world famous mail-order business he founded 55 years earlier.

“One of the first challenges was whether we could survive L.L.’s passing because so much of the business seemed to depend on his personally attending to every order that came through here,” his grandson, Leon Gorman, recalled.

The story of how in 1912 L.L. introduced his signature Maine Hunting Shoe with leather uppers and rubber bottoms, then gave refunds when most of the first 100 shoes proved defective, is part of company lore.

“We even thought of trying to keep his passing quiet if we could, but it got eight minutes on the Huntley-Brinkley show,” Mr. Gorman said.

Even as the death made headlines around the world and the outdoors outfitter received more than 50,000 messages of condolence, Carl Bean, L.L.’s son and successor, would never acknowledge in the catalog that his father was no longer alive.

The closest he came was in the description of the L.L. Bean chamois shirt, one of the company’s most popular items. The line that read, “This is the shirt Mr. Bean uses on his hunting and fishing trips” was given a change in tense to reflect that L.L. “used” the shirt, Mr. Gorman said.

Despite his deep admiration of L.L. (Leon Leonwood), Mr. Gorman said the business was moribund when he began work there in 1960 after four years at Bowdoin College and three in the Navy. What he observed convinced him that changes were needed to assure the company’s long-term survival.

Mr. Gorman ascended to the top job when Carl died eight months after L.L.’s death. The story of Mr. Gorman’s 34 years as president, in which an idiosyncratic enterprise with less than $5 million in annual sales was transformed into a $1.2 billion powerhouse, is detailed in his new memoir, “L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon.”

The idea for the book came from publisher Harvard Business School Press, which looked to crossover appeal to carry it beyond a business audience to a general readership, including many L.L. Bean, Inc. customers. The Harvard Business School was familiar with the company, having done a number of case studies on it over the years, and it approached Mr. Gorman in 1999 about writing the book.

What makes L.L. Bean distinctive is how it was able to maintain that kind of homey sensibility even as its spectacular growth gave it a huge presence in the retail market, said David Goehring, vice president and director of Harvard Business School Press.

“It shows how you can maintain your values while injecting professional management techniques,” he said.

To Mr. Gorman, all the company’s success goes back to its founder and the kind of man he was. “I think his real genius was being able to project his personality, either through the catalog or in person. He was just by nature larger than life and a very attractive person,” he said at L.L. Bean headquarters in Freeport.

Still, Mr. Gorman isn’t shy about detailing the management shortcomings he encountered during his first years at L.L. Bean, as L.L. and Carl balked at upgrading the product line, introducing technology or changing their old-fashioned order processing and fulfillment systems.

L.L. saw no reason for change. “I’m eating three meals a day and I can’t eat four,” was his pithy rejoinder that Mr. Gorman grew tired of hearing. And if the volume of orders sometimes proved too high to handle, Carl would say, “Send them back,” though somehow all would eventually be processed.

The business expanded during the first years of Mr. Gorman’s leadership as the dawn of the environmental movement combined with an increase in leisure time sparked demand for L.L. Bean’s outdoors-oriented products.

The company’s growing mystique attracted loyal customers who regarded the catalog as their bible and a visit to the retail store in Freeport as a pilgrimage to Mecca.

By 1975, the business became too big for Mr. Gorman to manage. He recruited a corps of business school graduates, all with a love of the outdoors, who brought professional management techniques. With those changes, and the “preppie boom” of the early 1980s that put the company in the vanguard of fashion, sales continued to go through the roof.

But sales turned flat with the recession of the early 1990s and there was stiffer competition before growth returned later in the decade. Today, sales have reached $1.5 billion and the company is expanding its network of retail stores in the Northeast.

Amid the changes, Mr. Gorman says L.L. Bean needs to maintain its core values, reflected in its outdoors heritage and its customer service tradition, including a liberal returns policy.

Mr. Gorman wrote most of the book after he retired from management in 2001; he stayed on as board chairman of the family owned company. Yet the executive who introduced the computer to L.L. Bean in 1972 wrote the book in longhand, confessing that he is “computer illiterate” and can put his thoughts into words more easily with a pen than a keyboard.

He and his successor as president, Chris McCormick, meet weekly at company offices, and Mr. Gorman presides over the quarterly board meetings, but he has cut himself loose from day-to-day management.

At 71, he maintains the love for the outdoors that prompted him to introduce weeklong hiking and canoeing trips for company managers early in his presidency. Tall and trim, he continues to enjoy fly fishing, bird hunting, cross-country skiing and distance running.

Reflecting on how the company has changed in the nearly 40 years since his grandfather’s death, Mr. Gorman says L.L. would have mixed emotions.

“As a hands-on entrepreneur, I don’t think L.L. would have been comfortable with the size of the business,” Mr. Gorman said. “On the other hand, he had a pretty good size ego, and I think he would have been gratified that his name is so widely known and so highly regarded as it is today.”

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