Full of (LL) Beans: As America"s famous hunting boot celebrates its centenary, a look back at the character that started it all


Full of (LL) Beans: As America's famous hunting boot celebrates its centenary, a look back at the character that started it all


Founding father: Leon Leonwood Bean pictured in 1945. He sold his first pair of hunting boots in 1912

Founding father: Leon Leonwood Bean pictured in 1945. He sold his first pair of hunting boots in 1912

Back in the days before retailers like Gap, J Crew or American Outfitters, there were guys like LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch.

In Maine, LL 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 catalogues, where he came across as someone customers could trust.

'The important part of LL 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. He was a genuine presence,' said his grandson,
Leon Gorman, chairman of the board.

The
retailer that celebrates the outdoors with Leon Leonwood 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.

A
century later, the family-owned retailer that started with Bean's
hunting shoe in 1912 has grown into a business with a $1.5 billion in
projected sales in its 2011 fiscal year.

Along
the way, the company has successfully expanded from a catalogue
retailer to an online retailer and a bricks-and-mortar retailer, and has
managed to create a customer loyalty that's envied by others, said
Kevin Lane Keller, a branding expert at the Tuck School of Business at
Dartmouth University.

'They had an iconic catalogue that
they had figured out. Now they're having to look at other ways to sell.
That's part of modern retailing: You have multiple channels,' he said.

The
company has recovered lost ground during the recession, but consumer
confidence remains a concern as retailers continue to discount
merchandise to entice consumers.

Home-made boots: The classic L.L Bean duck boot, with leather uppers and rubber soles, has been brought back to life as a fashion statement

In vogue: The LL Bean duck boot, with leather uppers and rubber soles, has been enjoying soaring sales thanks to a new trend for retro footwear

Long term, the nation's sedentary lifestyle is as big a concern as competitors ranging from outdoors retailers like Cabela's to catalog merchandisers like Lands' End. 'For us the challenge is people spending less time outside and engaged in traditional activities,' said company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem.

While economic growth is slow, consumer behaviour is changing rapidly, and it's a challenge to stay ahead.

'I never figured out why [my grandfather's] personality
was so magnetic, but it was'

'With
the Internet maturing as a media channel, it has increased the pace of
everything,' said Geoff Wolf, executive vice president at J Schmid &
Associates, a Kansas-based catalogue marketing specialist.

LL's
company got off to an inauspicious start. Bean obtained the state's
list of out-of-staters with 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 before going out and selling more of them.

Five years later, he opened a store in Freeport.

His
golden rule was: 'Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat
your customers like human beings and they will always come back for
more.'

The kids are alright: Leon Leonwood Bean is seen with grandsons, from left, Leon Gorman, Jim Gorman, and Tom Gorman, at his office in Freeport, Maine

The kids are alright: Leon Leonwood Bean is seen with grandsons, from left, Leon Gorman, Jim Gorman, and Tom Gorman, at his office in Freeport, Maine

And customers
did come back for more, showing up at all hours. Bean always answered
the doorbell. Thus became the tradition of the flagship store being open
24/7, 365 days a year.

/01/17/article-2087607-0F7DC6FB00000578-208_468x413.jpg” width=”468″ height=”413″ alt=”Family business: Leon Leonwood Bean (left) pictured in 1923 wearing snow shoes with his brothers Otho (centre) and Guy (right)” class=”blkBorder” />

Family business: Leon Leonwood Bean (left) pictured in 1923 wearing snow shoes with his brothers Otho (centre) and Guy (right)

His voice came through loud and clear, and people liked it.

'I never figured out why his personality was so magnetic, but it was. When he died in 1967, we were concerned that the company wouldn't survive his passing,' Gorman said.

The company not only survived but thrived under Gorman, who took over. Unlike his grandfather, Gorman is reserved and soft-spoken, but he gets credit for modernising the company, formalizing Bean's 'customer first' policies and creating the first computerized customer database.

Then came more rapid-fire changes: the toll-free number in 1985, online sales and retail stores from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest.

The company is still privately held, and
that continuity of ownership over the decades has helped the company
retain its identity, said Madison Riley, managing director at Kurt
Salmon, a consulting firm.

LL Bean is celebrating its 100th birthday with the launch of the so-called Bootmobile, which will arrive in New York City on Wednesday

Centenary car: LL Bean is celebrating its 100th birthday with the launch of the so-called Bootmobile, which will arrive in New York City on Wednesday

Just being in business for 100 years is a milestone, but to be successful requires companies to walk a tightrope between retaining traditional customers and attracting newer ones.

Companies that lose sight of their identity or their customer base, or try to change too quickly, run the risk of becoming either a Gap, which lost customers after changing too rapidly in targeting younger customers, or Levi Strauss & Co, which was too slow to revamp its product line, Keller said.

'For any heritage brand, the key is to innovate and remain relevant,' Keller said.

'You're trying to balance the heritage, but yet you've got to do some things differently. That's the challenge, balancing continuity with change. You've got to get that right or you'll be left behind.'