Learning From History - Leon Gorman on L.L. Bean

   
Leon Gorman led L.L. Bean from $2.25 million to $1.2 billion from 1967 to 2001. In a keynote speech in Boston several years ago, he recalled the life of his grandfather, Leon Leonwood Bean, who founded the renowned outdoor gear and apparel company. Gorman believes that the company has prospered in large part because it has maintained its values, perhaps epitomized by the tenet "Treat people with respect, or they will not respect you."

Gorman has written about the company and its growth in the last half-century in L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon. This is one of the industry's great books. It painstakingly charts the changes in marketing and merchandising that achieved these dramatic results over 38 years. The book discusses the synergy and the necessary tension between marketing and merchandising. The role that supply chain strategies, including call center, plays in providing exemplary customer service. Staying true to the principles established by his grandfather L.L., sourcing the best outdoor products at the right price, how the college and preppy trends accelerated L.L. Bean's growth, trying to sell to women shoppers without getting caught up in fashion trends, providing a 100%, no-quibble guarantee (there are legendary stories about shoppers returning outdoor gear after extensive wear). It is the ultimate in customer service and kept customers coming back. Bean's huge retail presence in Freeport, ME and the slow charting of retail growth outside the region. Gorman talks about how different these channels are for them.

I met Leon Gorman in the mid-1970s. Mr. Gorman was friends with Mr. Frank O'Reilly, the then president of Brooks Brothers. In a very forward-thinking strategy, Mr. O'Reilly launched the first Brooks Brothers' catalog when BB had less than 20 stores. At that time I worked for Garfinckels, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Roads, Inc., in the corporate data center as the manager of research and development (systems and programming). Our team was invited to Freeport, ME for a week to explore all the aspects of order management software and customer service. Mr. Al Schmidt was in charge of the marketing at that time. Mr. Gorman and his team couldn't have been more gracious and thorough in educating us on the basics. Back then there were no commercially available order management systems. I vividly remember Mr. Gorman walking us through how he guided the selection of product and worked with creative to paginate the catalogs, and his concern for developing new products. We designed and programmed our 370 mainframe system by emulating L.L. Bean.

In the book, Mr. Gorman continually talks about the top guy being thoroughly involved with the merchandising of a direct company, something which is obviously very difficult to do given this rate of growth. Without continual product research and development and sourcing, retail and direct businesses are essentially out of business.

What's interesting about the way the book is written is that many people were interviewed, current and former L.L. Bean managers across the company and consultants as far back as Stanley Fenvessy. Mr. Gorman has his commentary and the other participants give their viewpoints (they are identified by name and position). This illustrates the contrasting viewpoints of various people who charted and achieved the company's long-term growth. But one thing for sure, Leon Gorman was ultimately in charge, and he held himself and the company accountable to achieving the best results for all stakeholders.

This is a great read. Get your team reading it now. Especially for young managers it's a great way to see how all the functions fit together.

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Curt Barry is president of F. Curtis Barry & Company, a national consultancy focusing on warehouse, systems, and inventory management.