|By Susan Emerson Nutter
FREEPORT, Maine — “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Or in the case of L.L.Bean, it was the beginning of an empire.
One-hundred years ago, Leon Leonwood Bean, avid hunter and outdoorsman from Maine, returned from the field with wet, soggy feet. Thinking there had to be a better way, Bean sewed the leather uppers from hunting boots to the rubber bottom of workmen boots; and in 1911, the Maine Hunting Shoe was born.
Soon people were requesting their own pair, and L.L.Bean was established; launching one of the most successful family-run businesses in the country.
L.L.Bean is celebrating 100 years in 2012, and they are doing it up big. A visit to the company’s retail stores in Freeport, Maine is an event all its own. The fact that L.L.Bean is in celebration mode makes it even better.
Throughout the store are displays of vintage L.L.Bean items, from early examples of the Maine Hunting Shoe to fishing creels, hunting knives and early apparel to the machine that sewed that first, now famous boot.
To honor L.L.Bean’s 100th anniversary, the company also issued very limited edition items. Not surprisingly many have sold out they were in such great demand. The company did keep one example of each for their archival museum, and these were also on display in the Freeport flagship store for all to admire. And admire is an appropriate term because admiration is what L.L.Bean built his business on.
L.L.Bean first worked out of his brother’s apparel shop in 1912 making his innovative boots. According to the company history found on www.llbean.com, Bean “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.”
It is interesting to note that Bean’s boots were not instant hits. In fact, of the first 100 orders for his boots, 90 of the rubber bottoms separated from the leather tops. And here lies the two main reasons for L.L.Bean’s success.
Though it was nearly his company’s undoing, Bean stayed true to his word, and refunded the purchase price to his unsatisfied customers. He then borrowed more money, fixed the problem, and again sent out flyers touting the wonders of his boot and … the firm conviction of customer satisfaction.
Such tenacity and trust resulted in a faithful following; one built on admiration for a man who keeps his word. And L.L.Bean’s legion of fans continues to build.
Anyone who has ever signed up to receive L.L.Bean’s catalog knows the founder’s other conviction to his company’s success – advertising. Even in the beginning, Bean used all company profits for advertising.
He knew how important it was to get the word out about his product, and he did just that. Today, those who ask for an L.L.Bean catalog to be mailed, the company will mail a catalog each year regardless if any item is ever bought.
And though Bean believed in the power of advertising, his catalog was not the only venue used to promote his products.
Leon Gorman, Bean’s grandson and company president from 1967 to 2001, said, “Word-of-mouth advertising and customer satisfaction were critical to Bean’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.”
With the onset of the automobile in the 1920s, more sportsmen made the trip to Maine to not only hunt and fish, but to visit L.L.Bean. Here they found quality products and expert advice. By 1934, the company’s factory had grown to more than 13,000-square-feet in size, and the once simple flyer was now a 52-page catalog.
Maybe most impressive is the fact that during this era, L.L.Bean generated more than 70 percent of the mail volume at the Freeport, Maine post office. By 1937, sales at L.L.Bean had surpassed the $1 million mark.
Bean’s high standard of customer service was unheard of in 1912 when he started his business, but exemplary customer service is still the foundation of L.L.Bean. Whether seeking advice, buying products, returning or exchanging purchases, L.L.Bean has set the standard.
“The customer is always right,” could be the company’s motto.
And, “Our store is always open,” became the mantra for L.L.Bean in 1951 when it was decided the store would remain open 365 days a year; 24 hours per day. “To this day, there are no locks on the doors of the flagship store in Freeport,” the company website states.
So who was L.L.Bean? Born in Auburn, Maine in October 1872, “Lennie” was the fourth of six kids. By the time he was 8, Bean’s parents, Benjamin Warren Bean and Sarah Swett Bean, moved the family to Bethel. Even at this early age, Bean showed a preference for the outdoors and an entrepreneurial bent. He had taken to trapping minks, foxes and muskrats selling their pelts for money.
Then tragedy struck. Just after his 12th birthday, Bean’s father died. Four days later, his mother died. Now an orphan, Bean went to live in South Paris, Maine with his mother’s brother. At the age of 15, Bean moved to West Minot, Maine to live with another uncle. It was during his teens when Bean began hunting; he bagged his first deer at age 13.
According to John Witherell who wrote the book, L.L. Bean – The Man and His Company, the Complete Story, Bean became a true outdoorsman while working odd jobs and furthering his education. Bean attended Hebron Academy in his late teens and Kents Hill Academy in Readfield when he turned 18.
Bean paid his own way by selling soap and working in a Bangor butter factory until he graduated in 1893. He then went to Yarmouth to work at a shoe store owned by his brother, Otto.
Nineteen years would pass before Bean came back from a hunting trip with wet feet and devised his innovative Maine Hunting Shoe, but during the years prior to this momentous occasion, he learned how to run a business by working with family.
According to Ruth Porter, who runs the L.L.Bean archive, Bean came to be in Freeport, ME, as brother Otto had just opened a store there. The business sold both clothing and shoes, and Bean worked here with his other brother, Irvin.
So Freeport became Bean’s base, and the Maine Hunting Boot launched his career. Visitors to L.L.Bean’s Freeport store should make a point to sneak a peek at the simple white house located behind the flagship store.
This is the L.L.Bean family’s Freeport home and houses the company’s archives which define in merchandise, artwork and advertising the century-long history of the company. Though the building is not open to the public, items from the archives are often displayed in the Freeport store.
Archival items as well as the 100th anniversary items created to celebrate this milestone are currently being exhibited throughout the Freeport store. Most stunning is the 100th anniversary canoe made by Old Town Canoes and Kayaks; a company who has been making wood and canvas canoes for more than a century.
Just 11 anniversary canoes were produced for L.L.Bean using a form dating back to 1908. The vessels are numbered 0 to 10 with example 0, the canoe kept by L.L.Bean for their archives, being on display. The classic building process consisting of drying the wood, bending the ribs onto the form and stretching the canvas over the ribs was used to produce these anniversary canoes. With each measuring 36 feet long and 16 inches wide, the canoes sold for $2,500.