Maine Man: The Story of L.L. Bean and His Company

Miss Natalie D via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Miss Natalie D via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Miss Natalie D via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

L.L. Bean, the outdoor goods company known for cozy slippers, flannel wear, and nostalgia-inducing catalogs, has stayed surprisingly relevant across its 100 years in business. Its original Bean Boot has become a fashion statement of late, while its camping gear remains a go-to for millions of outdoor enthusiasts. Each year, more than three million people visit L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine, helping fuel the company’s $1.6 billion in annual sales.

And it all started with a man who was tired of wet feet.

Leon Leonwood Bean—"L.L." to everyone who knew him—was an avid hunter and fisherman who never envisioned himself running a business, much less a multimillion dollar company. All he knew was that he had a persistent problem: Every time he went moose hunting in the boggy Maine wilderness, his feet got soaked. He tried out different pairs of boots, but the result was the same each time. So finally, he decided to do something about it.

The 40-year-old Bean, who left school after the eighth grade, was a career journeyman. He’d worked at a local creamery, sold soap door-to-door, and after his brother Otho opened a dry goods store, L.L. managed it. But Bean had never sewn a stitch in his life, and had zero experience making shoes. So he paid a local cobbler to make a special boot that attached a leather ankle support onto the hard rubber bottoms of galoshes. Bean called his creation the Maine Hunting Shoe.

bullcitydave via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The boot’s combination of a sturdy base with a lighter support structure was perfect for hunters who needed to walk long distances through adverse conditions. And it was a pretty novel concept for the early 1900s. After completing a successful hunting trip in them, Bean ordered 100 pairs of Maine Hunting Shoes.

To sell the shoes, he drafted an advertising flyer positioning himself as an expert outfitter:

Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. 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 past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of heavy hunting boots.

Bean’s next step was a stroke of genius that, in hindsight, predicted his future success. Gathering all the names and addresses of Maine hunting license holders, he sent his flyer to those residing out of state. His thinking: These individuals were more likely to be novices in need of expert advice. In no time, he sold his first 100 pairs.

From a 1943 catalog, via eBay

Bean’s brilliant marketing would quickly sour, however, when the leather and rubber components of the boots began to come apart. One by one, customers sent their busted-up Maine Hunting Shoes back to him seeking a refund. The final tally was 90 out of the 100 pairs—a devastating failure rate for a new venture with limited resources.

Unbowed, Bean refunded everyone’s money, borrowed $400, traveled to Boston and met with representatives from the United States Rubber Company, who supplied him with new bottoms that would hold the stitching better. After returning to Maine, Bean manufactured the updated boots and sent pairs to the previously dissatisfied customers, free of charge. They were delighted.

This focus on service and quality, supported by a money-back guarantee, would become the backbone of L.L. Bean, the company. This sounds like PR boilerplate, but back in 1912 things like product safety and reliability were far from guaranteed—and it paid dividends for the tiny outfitter from Freeport. As word of mouth grew, L.L. Bean gained more customers, many of whom wrote to request the new and improved Maine Hunting Shoe. Bean sent out the orders, and made sure to slip in a brochure filled with folksy pitches he’d written for his growing lineup of products, which included zippered duffel bags, chamois shirts, moccasins, and fishing lures.

In addition to reliable products, L.L. Bean got a boost from the expanding U.S. Postal Service, which started its parcel service in the early 1900s. In 1917, Bean built a factory and shipment center over the town’s post office. With the help of another brother, Guy, who was the local postmaster, he built a system of chutes and elevators that quickly routed order slips and packages. As these deliveries sped across the northeast and throughout the country, the name L.L. Bean became synonymous with outdoor adventure.

From a 1930 catalog, via eBay

Bean also benefited from the growing number of automobile owners, many of whom began driving up to Maine for fishing trips and family outings. They’d make a special stop at the L.L. Bean showroom, positioned next door to the factory, where they’d often find the company’s affable founder eager to outfit them for their trip.

A few key endorsements fueled further growth for the company: The MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1925 used its boots, and celebrities like Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth were frequent customers. In time, names like Franklin Roosevelt, John Wayne, and Ernest Hemingway would sing the company’s praises. But it was L.L. Bean the man who figured most prominently into the company’s early success. According to numerous accounts, Bean was a born salesman who excelled at building relationships with his customers. He had his hands in every aspect of the business, too. He tested every product himself, often taking long lunch breaks to hike and fish using the latest gear. He also controlled everything from the company’s merchandising to ordering to the designing and writing of the company’s seasonal catalogs.

The L.L. Bean catalog, which began as a simple four-page flyer, quickly grew into a 51-page guide stuffed with clothing, shoes, sporting goods, and home furnishings. Not only did it showcase the products for sale, it conveyed the personality of the company, embodied by Bean himself. "It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish," he wrote in a 1927 catalog. "We have done that experimenting for you." Friendly, helpful, and a little eccentric, the catalogs made people feel like they were buying from a lovable, excitable uncle rather than a company.

Fall 1943 catalog, via eBay

That lovable uncle, though, was also a savvy businessman who relished his role at the top. In his book L.L. Bean: The Making of An American Icon, Leon Gorman, L.L.’s grandson and former head of the company, recalled one executive flourish Bean put on display in the Freeport store:

"I was always struck that, near the cashier station in the retail store, L.L. had put up a big formal portrait of himself in a pin-striped suit. It was incongruous among all the snowshoes, fishing and hunting gear, and other outdoors paraphernalia—certainly not the image people had of this country uncle running a little catalog operation up in the woods of Maine."

Customer loyalty kept L.L. Bean thriving through the Depression. By 1937, the company had reached more than $1 million in annual sales. Its mail-order service expanded as the catalog grew in size. Now customers could buy everything from business shirts and barn jackets to pocket knives and swivel-head duck decoys. In 1942, L.L. traveled to Washington, where he advised military leaders on cold-weather outfits for troops. The company would end up supplying special boots known as "shoepacs" to the war effort. By the 1950s, L.L. Bean had become a household name.

For years, the company enjoyed sales growth of 25 percent and higher. By 1960, however, that growth had slowed considerably. The competition had caught up to L.L. Bean’s pricing and product quality. And the expansion of retail stores across the country offered a more hands-on buying experience for consumers. Bean, who by this time was approaching 90 years old and was still running the company, was behind the times when it came to manufacturing and marketing, too. His Freeport factory was a tangle of inefficiencies, and relied on an aging, part-time work force that wasn’t keeping up with order volume. In an era when print and television advertising was rapidly evolving, L.L. Bean could no longer rely on the hard work and folksy appeal of its founder to move product.

Bean would stay on as the company head until his death in 1967, at the age of 94. At that time, Gorman, a Bowdoin graduate and Naval Reservist who Bean hired in 1961 as treasurer, took over, becoming only the second person to lead a business that was more than 50 years old.

Scott Thomas via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The company eventually caught up with the times. Gorman increased L.L. Bean’s advertising budget, made its pricing more competitive, streamlined its factory operations, and expanded retail locations throughout the northeast. But it also kept much of the original DNA that gave the L.L. Bean its identity, like the catalog and the Freeport outlet, which features a giant statue of Bean’s famous Maine Hunting Shoe (size 451).

For a company that prides itself on extreme customer service, they have one advantage many other companies can't claim: The Freeport outlet stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and never locks its doors. This practice hails back to 1951, when Bean, after years of agreeably waking up in the wee hours to outfit hunters and fishermen (the store’s doorbell had a sign over it that read, "Ring once a minute until clerk appears"), decided to keep the outlet open all hours.

Over the past 65 years, the Freeport store has remained constantly open, with one exception: February 5, 1967, the day of L.L. Bean’s funeral.