Recently, we sat down with Guaranteed to Last author, Jim Gorman, to talk about his experience writing L.L.Bean’s centennial story. As an avid outdoorsman and lifelong fan of L.L.Bean, Jim had dozens of his own outdoor stories to share with us.
How did you approach the writing of this book?
L.L.Bean played a huge and slightly mythical role in the town I grew up in New Jersey. We were prepped out long before the rest of the nation was swept by the Preppy Boom in the early ’80s. Norwegian Sweaters, “duck boots,” Fair Isle Sweaters, and down vests were vital parts of our uniform, and Bean was the purveyor. In those pre-mall, pre-internet days, shopping for clothes involved a degree of difficulty hard to imagine today. When the L.L.Bean catalog arrived in our mailbox, it incited squabbling between my siblings and me. By the time the catalog got to me, it was dog-eared and marked with emphatic ink circles. For this child of the suburbs, the L.L.Bean catalog inspired dreams of snowshoeing through a blizzard to a log cabin in the Maine Woods while warm and snug in that mackinaw jacket I just had to have.
You spent a lot of time exploring L.L.Bean’s facilities in Maine while doing research for Guaranteed to Last. What were your impressions of the facilities and the people who work in them?
I think a lot of people would be very surprised to see how big an operation L.L.Bean really is. I was in one distribution center so incredibly large it reminded me of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where a forklift tucks the ark away in this giant vault of a warehouse. The employees of Bean are, and always have been, the company’s best asset, from the superhelpful women and men who handle phone orders and customer problems, to the dedicated creative and design staff who devise the clothes and gear that appear in the catalog. I kept hearing time and again from employees about the customer. How can we anticipate the customer’s needs; how can we make their experience fully satisfying?
What is it about the culture of L.L.Bean that has made its customers so loyal?
Out of all the many hundreds of letters, emails and tweets I’ve read that were sent in by customers dating back at least 70 years, two themes emerge: constancy and decency. The constancy part comes from L.L.Bean selling heritage products like the Chamois Shirt, Maine Hunting Shoe, Boat and Tote, and many others year in and year out. When the rest of the world is changing by the minute, that kind of dependability means a lot. Of course, as we discuss in the book, those heritage products, including the venerable Maine Hunting Shoe, have been subtly updated. To Beaniacs, though, those heritage products are links to their own past and to simpler times. The decency part of the loyalty equation pertains to the Bean guarantee and the unspoken pact based on mutual trust that binds each customer and the company. Oh, and one other thing that breeds loyalty: Bean employees are so damn nice and helpful.
Can you share with us some of most interesting discoveries you made about L.L.Bean during your research?
For starters, that the “L.L.” in L.L.Bean was a real, live and most remarkable man. L.L. was part sage, part huckster. He knew his customers’ desires and aspirations and matched that knowledge with an uncanny merchandising sensibility. For all of his focus on hunting and fishing, the man had a real notion for what was unaffectedly stylish. How else can you explain the Blucher Moccasin or Ladies’ French Sailor Shirt? The other interesting discovery was just how close the company came to going belly up or being purchased during L.L.’s later years. It took the restless mind and native business sense of L.L.’s grandson, Leon Gorman, to rescue the company and put it on the path to becoming the $1.4-billion company it is today.
Can you tell us what your favorite L.L.Bean product is and why?
I own many Bean products but my favorite is no longer in my possession. My mom got me a Zipper Duffle when I went away to college. Mahogany colored canvas, bands of green reinforcing, and leather handles and leather piping, that baby looked like something Jay Gatsby would toss into his roadster. That bag and I went everywhere: the beach, the mountains, my first cross-country road trip. Somehow the Zipper Duffle and I got separated, probably in the midst of moving from one post-college group house to another. Bean built the Zipper Duffle to last and last, so I know mine is out there still traveling. Come back.
Check back in the coming weeks for Part 2 of our chat with Jim.