L.l. Bean's Bag Never Changes: the Founder's Grandson Fits Out Sports from the Veep to John Denver
There are 1.5 million L.L. Bean customers nationwide—most of whom will never see the store. Between 3,000 and 30,000 inquiries and orders arrive daily in the mail. In a year, Bean uses 4,000 tons of paper for its catalogue and spends $4 million shipping everything from military belts (at $3) to canoes ($635). The 1980 sales of such sportswear and outdoor gear are expected to total $120 million.
Founded in 1912 by flamboyant New England outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean, the family business prospered for nearly half a century. But when grandson Leon Gorman took over as president shortly after L.L.'s death at 94 in 1967, the store was floundering. "Morale was about as high as the floor," says Gorman, 45, "because of the way L.L. had run the company the prior 10 years." Products were outdated—Bean was still selling tents of heavy canvas when competitors offered lightweight nylon and cotton. The average age of the Bean staff hovered near 60, and the company was as attractive to new talent as Maine's black flies to campers.
Upon accession, Gorman rapidly streamlined the firm without sacrificing his grandfather's principles. Some $12 million was poured into modernizing an operation that can now handle 2,500 packages an hour. "Leon's career and life is Bean," says his right-hand man, Bill End, a 32-year-old outlander from Milwaukee with a Harvard M.B.A.
Many of Bean's employees are accomplished sportsmen, and one of their perks is occasionally testing products on tax-deductible field trips. Four years ago, after white-water canoeing on Maine's St. John River, one aide came up with the idea of painting sand on the canoe floor so customers could stand without slipping to flycast or pole upstream. Gorman himself doesn't write off his personal forays. He has hunted ducks on Maine's Casco Bay, geese in Maryland, quail in South Carolina and reeled in salmon in Alaska and Iceland.
The company employs a full-time quality-assurance team of up to 24 to test products for strength, color fastness, etc. Bean also cheerfully makes good on defective merchandise. It seldom questions the customer. "Most are honest," Leon finds. Last year when Pat Snoffner of Nenana, Alaska wrote complaining that a package hadn't been delivered (it had to be air-dropped), Bean sent her a duplicate. Seven months later Snoffner found the first parcel, which was "in fine shape although it had been under snow for seven months." She asked Bean to bill her.
Gorman was the youngest of three sons born to L.L.'s daughter, Barbara (she is now 72 and lives in a nursing home). Her husband, Jack, who died in 1959, was a vice-president of the firm, but he discouraged his sons from following in his footsteps.
After graduating in 1956 from Maine's Bowdoin College, where he majored in government and liberal arts, Leon served for three and a half years as a Navy officer. "When I got out," he recalls, "I didn't know what to do, so I went back to Bowdoin and talked to a placement director, who suggested I work for L.L. Bean."
Starting at $80 a week in 1961 ("My grandfather thought salaries were a charitable contribution"), Gorman slowly learned the business, taking accounting courses at night, attending seminars and talking to management experts. In 1964 he married Wendy Goad, a registered nurse from Montreal. They adopted a son and daughter, Jeffrey, now 12, and Ainslie, 11, before having Jenny, 5. The Gormans divide their time between an antique 12-room home, circa 1850, in Yarmouth and a modern four-bedroom condo in North Conway, N.H. Wendy, 41, views Leon as "an entrepreneur rather than a workaholic," but she adds, "He sometimes forgets little things like feeding the children when I'm not around."
Bean remains a family-owned business (older brother Tom, 49, is traffic manager), but Gorman fears this could be the last generation. "The family may have to sell stock to pay estate taxes," he explains. Otherwise, he is confident about the future. The name will grace more than its catalogue next year when Random House launches an L.L. Bean series with a Game and Fish Cookbook and a Guide to the Outdoors. And the current recession has been no problem. With the high cost of gas and the increased number of women working (they account for 40 percent of Bean's customers), Gorman finds that more people are shopping by mail. "It's conceivable we could double in size in five years," he says. There are always new customers. Babe Ruth, Eleanor Roosevelt and John Wayne ordered from Gorman's granddad. Now Carlton Fisk and Elton John are buying from Leon.