Bean, L. L.
L. L. Bean
L.L. Bean is a name recognized around the world, but not everyone knows there was a real person behind it. Leon Leonwood Bean, known as "L. L.", started a small mail-order business in 1912 to sell a waterproof hunting boot of his own design. Bean and his namesake business went on to become the world's largest mail-order company, sending out millions of catalogs a year and eventually branching out into several stores and outlets in the United States and Japan. From humble beginnings to its status as an internationally known corporation, the L.L. Bean company is still family owned, with founder Bean's grandson serving as chairman.
"Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more."—"L. L.'s Golden Rule," from the L. L. Bean Web site
Doing What It Takes
Leon Leonwood Bean was born in Greenwood, Maine, in 1872, one of six children. He was orphaned at the age of twelve when his parents, Benjamin and Sarah Bean, died within a short time of each other. He and his four brothers and sister were taken in by relatives in South Paris, Maine. A few years later, young Bean moved to West Minot, Maine, to live with an uncle.
As a young man, Bean loved the outdoors and was an avid hunter and fisherman. After he finished the eighth grade, his traditional schooling ended. His later education consisted of a few business courses at area colleges in the early 1890s. In 1898, Bean married Bertha Porter and worked at various jobs to support his family, including selling soap and making dairy products. He and Bertha eventually had three children, and traveled around northeastern Maine as Bean looked for steady work.
The Beans eventually settled in Freeport, a small town on Maine's eastern coast, near Portland. Leon and brother Ervin opened a dry-goods store, run mostly by Ervin while Leon spent the majority of his time outdoors. His frustration over wet, cold feet prompted him to design a waterproof boot with leather uppers and a rubber sole in 1911. After a nearby shoemaker stitched the leather to the rubber for him, Bean decided to sell the boots through the mail to men who had purchased hunting licenses in Maine. Using the state's mailing list, he put together a short, descriptive pamphlet with an order form for his invention, the Maine Hunting Shoe.
Bean eventually received about one hundred orders for the Maine Hunting Shoe, and happily mailed them out to his customers. Unfortunately, some of the stitching came undone and others cracked, so ninety of the customers wrote him back and expressed their disappointment. Disheartened and ashamed, Bean offered full refunds to each of his buyers and was determined to correct the problems. He borrowed money, traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, and worked with the United States Rubber Company to secure the leather uppers firmly to the rubber soles and make his boots watertight and durable. The new and improved Maine Hunting Shoe was everything Bean had promised his customers, and the L.L. Bean Company was formed in 1912.
From Boots to Booming Business
Over the next twenty-five years, Leon Bean built L.L. Bean into a thriving mail-order business famous up and down the east coast of the United States. His catalog was enjoyed by many, and thousands eagerly awaited its arrival in their mailboxes each year. By 1937, the company was bringing in sales of $1 million, and there was a small L.L. Bean manufacturing plant, office, and store on Main Street in Freeport. Two years later, in 1939, Bertha Bean died. The following year Bean married for a second time, to Claire Boudreau, who would be his lifelong companion.
In 1941, when the United States entered World War II (1939-45), L.L. Bean supplied the military with updated versions of its famous waterproof boots, and soldiers posted all over the world owed their dry, warm feet to Leon Bean. During this time, Bean decided to write a how-to book for his many fans. This was not a surprising feat since Bean wrote the copy for his company's catalog. Titled Hunting, Fishing, and Camping, the book offered tips for successful ventures into the wilderness. Published in 1942, it sold one hundred fifty thousand copies and had tear-out sections to provide handy references for its readers. It was reprinted numerous times.
Another milestone for Bean and his company came in 1951, when the Main Street store started staying open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. Bean claimed he threw away the keys, so he had to keep the doors open. The real reason, however, was that hunters and fishermen do not keep the same hours as other folks and often needed supplies or licenses or clothing in the late evening or early morning hours before the sun rose. Bean was committed to meeting the needs of his customers—with practical, reasonably priced, and guaranteed items—no matter what time of the day or night.
Business World Loses a Country Charmer
By the 1960s, Bean was getting on in years. He still worked on his beloved catalog, styled like a scrapbook, with folksy descriptions, sometimes goofily named products, and hunting and fishing hints. While some found his style endearing, others found it old-fashioned and silly. This never deterred Bean, because he was genuinely devoted to his personally-tested merchandise and his loyal customers.
Since the earliest days of the company, Leon Bean always personally tested each item in his catalog, which eventually included many more items than his original Maine Hunting Shoe.
Bean built his empire on two simple principles: offer quality products with an absolute money-back guarantee and follow the "Golden Rule." The Golden Rule was all about respect and courtesy, and clearly worked: "Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more." Bean followed this rule and insisted that everyone who worked for him do the same, including his grandson Leon Gorman, who had started working at the company in 1960 as the senior Leon was spending more time away from the family business.
In 1960, Bean penned another book. Called My Story: The Autobiography of a Down-East Merchant, it describes how he went from humble beginnings to become the head of one of the most successful companies in the United States. In 1967, Bean was in Florida with his second wife Claire when he died on February 7 at the age of ninety-four.
A sportsman, businessman, and inventor, Leon Leonwood Bean had lived his life his own way, creating a legendary company that was copied by dozens of imitators. Of course, few could match L.L. Bean's country charm or the devotion of its customers. From one pair of waterproof boots came a mail-order and retail empire with sales of over $1 billion annually. The original twenty-four-hour L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, still has no locks on its doors and has only closed once in its eighty-year history: the day of Leon L. Bean's funeral.
In honor of founder L. L. Bean's love of the wilderness, the company regularly contributes millions of dollars to such conservation groups as the Appalachian Trail Conference, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Leave No Trace, Maine Island Trail Association, and the National Parks Foundation.
For More Information
Bean, L. L. Hunting, Fishing, and Camping. 1942. Reprint, Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1993.
-My Story: The Autobiography of a Down-East Merchant. Freeport, ME: L.L. Bean, 1960.
Griffin, Carlene. Spillin' the Beans: Behind the Scenes at L.L. Bean. Freeport, ME: L.L. Bean, 1993.
The L.L. Bean Guide to the Outdoors. New York: Random House, 1981.
Montgomery, M. R. In Search of L.L. Bean. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Berman, Phyllis. "Trouble in Bean Land." Forbes (July 6, 1992): p. 42.
Hays, Constance L. "L.L. Bean Casts About for Ways to Grow." New York Times (August 14, 1999): p. B1.
"Maine Retailer L.L. Bean Names First Outsider as CEO." Boston Globe (May 22, 2001): n.p.
Maxwell, Alison. "L.L. Bean to Increase Sites for Retail Stores." Women's Wear Daily (June 1, 1999): p. 4.
Skow, John. "Using the Old Bean." Sports Illustrated (December 2, 1985) p. 84.
Symonds, William C. "Paddling Harder at L.L. Bean." Business Week (December 7, 1998): p. 72.
Tedeschi, Bob. "L.L. Bean Stays Current by Staying Midstream." New York Times (September 20, 2000): p. D7.
L.L. Bean, Inc. [On-line] http://www.llbean.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).