February 12, 2007

L.L Bean

And the man behind the brand is...
Leon Leonwood Bean

All he really wanted was to keep his feet dry on deer-hunting trips. The all-leather logger's boot popular at the time gave good support but was uncomfortable and became unbearably heavy when wet. Rubber boots kept his feet dry but were awkward in the field.

What he needed, Leon Leonwood Bean knew, was a good hunting shoe.

Bean would later write, "My life up to the age of 40 years was most uneventful, with a few exceptions." One was his first hunting trip when he was 13.
The exhilaration over felling his first deer cultivated a life-long love affair with the outdoors.

Bean, born in western Maine in 1873 and orphaned at age 12, made his way by working on the farms of friends and relatives. As a young man he survived by trapping, selling soap door-to-door and doing anything that came along that didn't take too much time away from hunting.

In 1912 Bean attached some rugged lightweight leather upper to rubber overshoe bottoms. He field-tested the new boot himself and was delighted.
He made some boots for friends. They were pleased as well. Anybody who hunts should have these, he decided.

L.L. Bean obtained a mailing list of Maine hunting license holders and prepared a three-page brochure that proudly trumpeted: "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. We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way." When the rubber bottoms separated from the leather tops on 90 of the first 100 pairs of boots Bean kept his promise and refunded the money.

He borrowed money, perfected the bottoms and resumed selling his boot with unshaken confidence. The public could not resist the common sense or the genuine enthusiasm of his appeal. By 1917 he had sold enough boots to move to another location in the heart of Freeport, Maine.

In 1917 he added hunting apparel items to his line. Bean personally used each item and chose only those he thought his customers would appreciate. In 1927 he added fishing and camping equipment to his catalog with the good news: "It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish. We have done that experimenting for you."

By the 1920s the Maine Hunting Shoe had gone to the North Pole with Admiral MacMillan and L.L. Bean was employing 25 people. Word of mouth and customer satisfaction were paramount to his success. He was genuinely shocked if one of his products failed. He would barge around the factory bellowing for an explanation. He would then write the customer, return his money, enclose a gift and maybe invite him up to Maine for some fishing.

Bean was obsessed with building his mailing lists and advertised extensively in the outdoor magazines to promote his "free catalog." The book he mailed was a cluttered, fun-to-read compendium of practical, high-quality outdoor merchandise. Despite the Depression business increased four times. Sales passed $1,000,000 a year in 1937; "L.L. Bean. Freeport, Maine" was all that was scratched on many envelopes he received.

In 1942 Been wrote a short book called "Hunting-Fishing and Camping" to "give definite information in the fewest words possible on how to hunt, fish and camp." It sold 200,000 copies.

The L.L. Bean factory was always a lively place to work. In 1945 Bean set up a special retail salesroom in the middle of factory with a night bell for the convenience of hunters and fishermen who might need a license or a packet of flies at 4 a.m. In 1951 the single L.L. Bean retail store opened 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. "We have thrown away the keys to the place," boomed Bean.

He died in 1967 at the age of 94. L.L. Bean summed up his success as "the fact that I tried on the trail practically every article I handle. If I tell you a knife is good for cleaning trout, it is because I found it so. If I tell you a wading boot is worth having, very likely you might have seen me testing it at Merrymeeting Bay."

His customers included Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Franklin Roosevelt, John Wayne and Amy Vanderbilt. L.L. Bean was a cult. Across the country people named dogs, and even babies "Leonwood" in honor of Bean's little-known middle name.

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