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October 12, 2006

Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects: L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Legend

By: Jack @ 1:05 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

L.L.Bean: The Making of an American Icon by Leon Gorman, Harvard Business School Press, 280 Pages, $26.95 Hardcover, October 2006, ISBN 1578511836
There are few true icons in the business world, and one that has maintained the integrity of its brand is L.L. Bean. Leon Gorman, the founders grandson who ran the business for many years, is the author, and he writes well and has a fascinating story to tell. The book is laid out in an unusual way. As Gorman tells his story, paragraphs appear with a supporting or challenging statement from a Bean employee. This can sometimes make for some challenging reading, but these additions do add another perspective to the story.
This book is a story of a company that grew with leaps and bounds and how hard it was to do that and keep the small town, personal part of the company. `
L.L. Bean started selling his leather top/rubber bottom hunting boots in 1912. They were a success, but with one slight problem. 90 of the first 100 pairs sold came back as defective. The uppers tore away from the bottoms. Determined, Bean borrowed another $400 from his brother and started over. The author says of this:
L.L. learned four lessons from this experience (in addition to staying out of debt in the future).To sell fully-tested high-quality products of the best functional value; To provide superior and personal customer service backed by a 100% satisfaction guarantee; To write honest, straightforward catalog and advertising copy that builds trust and mutual respect with customers; To sell through the catalog channel that can reach a national market from Maine and its outdoor heritage.
During Gormans time at the helm the aforementioned growth created some significant management issues and brand identity problems. But he also confronted a business slowdown in the late 80s. To give you an idea of Gormans self analysis, check out this paragraph:
I remember sitting down at the time and reviewing all our 1990 catalogs, page by page.I liked them. Maybe that was indicative of the problem. Maybe I wasnt the merchant I thought I was. Maybe my intuition wasnt as informed or up-to-date as it should have been. In any event our customers werent buying from our catalogs. There was a disconnect that we needed to understand. According to our research, customers liked us but we didnt seem to have the products they wanted. The theory of our customers being people like us was no longer working.
He goes on to talk about the fact that they werent connecting with the women customer and the need to get into retail outlets.
While the point/counterpoint style of including other voices makes for some flow problems, I value this book for Gormans honesty and the opportunity to learn about an American icon.