Beginnings: 1911 to 1959
In 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 by working out of 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.
L.L.Bean, Inc., quickly established itself as a trusted source for reliable outdoor equipment and expert advice. The small company grew.
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. Employees also understood that the business of L.L.Bean was to provide high-quality products backed by excellent service. As Leon Gorman, grandson of L.L. and company president from 1967 to 2001, has 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. L.L. 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 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 1999
As 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, L.L.'s grandson, 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 studied old catalogs, talked with long-time employees and vendors and immersed himself in learning about L.L.Bean products and markets. He formalized the company's customer service approach, revitalized its leadership and updated compensation policies. The old mailing list (fewer than a million names) was converted to a computerized database. Manufacturing moved to an updated facility, located about a mile from the original building. A 110,000-square-foot distribution facility was built on nearby property in 1974, then expanded again in 1979 to a 310,000-square-foot facility with over a mile of conveyer belts.
Poised for success, Leon Gorman and L.L.Bean continued to find innovative ways to better serve the company's customer base. In 1976, the introduction of credit card services made it easier to shop. The 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year service through both the catalog and store enabled an increasing number of catalog shoppers to connect with L.L.Bean. The first full-color catalog was published in 1979.
Rapid growth and expansion continued into the 1980s. In the early '80s, the company added fitness centers and walking trails to encourage employees to achieve and maintain good health. Employees also have the opportunity to enjoy active outdoor pursuits including fishing, kayaking, hiking and skiing at a group of Maine sporting camps that the company purchased in 1981.
In 1985, a toll-free phone number was added in response to the increasing number of customers shopping by phone. Customer contact centers were added in 1985, 1988, 1997 and 2005, increasing the company's capacity to answer the millions of contacts received each year. 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 its first liquidation outlet in North Conway, New Hampshire, to more efficiently liquidate discontinued merchandise at a significant value to customers. More outlets are being added annually. Visit L.L.Bean Outlets® for locations.
In 1989, L.L.Bean Manufacturing moved into a new facility that incorporated ergonomically designed systems. Ergonomic workstations were also introduced into all other areas of the company.
Also in 1989, a 40,000-square-foot addition to the flagship store in Freeport, Maine, provided more room to display a growing number of tents, boats and other popular products. In 1992, the company expanded its international business presence to include a store in Japan. And in 1995, L.L.Bean began its expansion into the electronic commerce market by launching llbean.com.
2000 to Today
In July 2000, L.L.Bean extended its retail store presence beyond Maine for the first time when it opened a store in McLean, Virginia. From 2001 to 2011, the company opened additional stores in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Illinois. L.L.Bean operates 19 retail stores outside of Maine and plans further retail expansion in the upcoming years. See retail stores for current store locations.
In 2001, with the company's tremendous success as his legacy, Leon Gorman assumed the role of Chairman of the Board. He named Chris McCormick, who joined the company in 1983, President and Chief Executive Officer, passing the company leadership to the first non-family member ever to hold the position.
In 2013, during L.L.Bean's 101st year in business, Shawn Gorman became L.L.Bean's new Chairman of the Board, replacing Leon Gorman who had served as the previous Chairman since 2001. Shawn is the great-grandson of company founder L. L. and is Leon's nephew. Leon has been named Chairman Emeritus and will remain an active member of the Board.
L.L.Bean's e-commerce business has seen tremendous growth, with online sales surpassing phone orders for the first time in 2010. L.L.Bean customers have enjoyed numerous improvements to llbean.com since its initial launch, including interactive shopping guides, 24-hour live customer service and features such as order tracking, up-to-date product availability, customer order history and ratings and reviews. The site has been recognized with numerous industry awards for its ease of use, design excellence and outstanding customer service.
In 2006, L.L.Bean committed to building all new structures according to the US Green Building Council's LEED standards. The LEED Green Building Rating System is a national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. As of 2013, L.L.Bean has 17 LEED buildings.
Today, L.L.Bean is an industry leader in brand management, customer loyalty and marketing database systems. The company is a well-recognized world leader in the mail order and retail industries and has developed a multichannel approach to maintaining the same high level of service for customers in the US and abroad. Below is a sampling of awards received from 2010 to 2013:
- ForeSee: #1 as the overall "brand satisfaction" category (tied with Amazon), #3 for US web sites and #1 for US apparel web sites
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Leaders in Conservation Award
- L.L.Bean named to Best Places to Work in Maine
- The Maine Environmental Education Association Business of Year
- Stores.Org favorite 50 retailers (#14)
- 1st Annual Social Media Outstanding Citizen Award (SMOC) from Blue Archer
- Top 25 Most Patriotic Brands (#14) - Brand Keys Patriotic Study
- 2013 Halo Award Best Environmental Campaign - Million Moment Mission
- Ranked in the top three for five consecutive years by the National Retail Federation Foundation/American Express Customer Service Survey for top-rated multichannel retailer in customer service
- Ranked #1 Bloomberg BusinessWeek Customer Service Champs
- Catalog of the Year for 2010 in the 25th Annual Multichannel Merchant Awards. L.L. Bean also took the Cross Channel Merchant of the Year honors.
- Ranked #1 outdoor outfitter by Forrester for web site Functionality Benchmark
- Ranked #6 as one of New England's Most Powerful Brands for 2010 from Protobrand
In March 2010, L.L.Bean launched L.L.Bean Signature, a new apparel and accessories collection inspired by the company's 100-year heritage. The collection features a modern fit and updated style, and includes classic items from the company's archives. The collection is available online at llbeansignature.com, as well as at our Flagship Store in Freeport, Maine, our Tysons Corner L.L.Bean Retail Store in McLean, Virginia and most L.L.Bean Retail Stores.
The year 2011 marked the re-introduction of free shipping with no minimum order. L.L.Bean had offered this service to customers from 1912 to 1991. Many competitors offer variations of free shipping for limited periods, typically with minimum purchase requirements and codes. L.L.Bean's goal was to make the benefit simple and permanent, in keeping with our long-standing tradition of delivering the best service in the industry.
L.L.Bean has long believed in the importance of creating and maintaining physical work environments that are clean, productive and hazard free. Our commitment to continuous improvement has been recognized by the US Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Several facilities have achieved OSHA's prestigious Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) status for making safety and health a top priority in the workplace. OSHA recognized L.L.Bean's ergonomic and stretch break program and also noted a strong, creative health and safety culture among employees. The VPP provides an opportunity for L.L.Bean to develop and maintain effective employee protections beyond OSHA requirements. L.L.Bean plans to have more sites VPP certified in the future.
In 2012, L.L.Bean celebrated its 100th Anniversary with a variety of contests, events and activities, as well as charitable donations to an array of organizations, all in the spirit of inspiring the next generation of youth to get out and enjoy the outdoors. The company also unveiled the Bootmobile - a larger-than-life, road-ready replica of its iconic L.L.Bean Boot. The Bootmobile is a 13-foot-high, 20-foot-long vehicle that travels around the country on a mission to inspire people to get outside and try a new activity.
Some of the centennial highlights included:
- Million Moment Mission - for each outdoor moment shared via social and direct channels, L.L.Bean contributed $1 to the National Park Foundation, up to $1 million
- Get Out[fitted] Gear Giveaway - L.L.Bean product giveaways every day in 2012
- Hometown Celebration - a four-day celebration, July 4-7, 2012, in Freeport, Maine
- Limited edition 100th Anniversary products
- 100th Anniversary books - Guaranteed to Last by Jim Gorman and Hunting, Fishing and Camping by L.L. Bean
- 100th Anniversary web site and 100-year timeline
- Social media initiatives and giveaways
- Trail Mix - the company's first blog