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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How L.L. Bean became a shoe

His was a brilliant idea.

Walking out of the woods in wet boots, Leon Bean -- everyone called him L.L. -- came up with a rough idea for dry boots, which would be rubber on the bottom and leather on the top part by stitching leather tops to rubber workingmen's shoes. Everyone thought it was a great idea. He obtained the list of out-of-state hunters with licenses in Maine and mailed out letters advertising his Maine Hunting Shoe. His pitch was to the point: "You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed."

He offered a money back guarantee and quickly sold 100 pairs -- and promptly had 90 returned. The rubber and the leather easily parted.

His was an epic failure. But L.L. Bean would rise to the occasion and prevail.

Born on October 13, 1872, in Greenwood, Maine, Leon Linwood Bean was one of six boys. He soon became an avid hunter and fisherman. When he was 12 his parents died, four days apart and the now orphaned boys were sent to live with relatives. A year later, he killed and sold his first deer. He performed odd jobs, sold soap door-to-door, and did some trapping. But it never seemed like he would amount to much.

“Although he was a natural salesman, he was never really satisfied in one job and drifted about from place to place,” Robert B. Pile wrote in "Top Entrepreneurs and Their Businesses."

Eventually, L.L. went to work for his older brother, Otho, at a dry goods store in Freeport, Maine. L.L. had a pretty good life. The job paid $12 a week, but he hunted and fished. It was on his return from a hunt in 1911 that he came up with his idea for a hunting boot.

He did everything right, except his vendor -- a shoe cobbler -- failed to stitch the leather to the rubber properly.

After paying all those refunds and eating the shipping charges -- L.L. never charged for shipping -- he borrowed $400 from the bank and had U.S. Rubber Company make his boots. The first thing he did was ship 90 pair to the customers who had demanded refunds. Not only did they get refunds but replacements as well.

L.L. Bean did not make money on the deal, he made something more valuable: A reputation for honesty.

He set up his company the right way. Customers could get their choice of a refund or a replacement. He always ate the shipping charges.

L.L. Bean also tried out all the products he sold, which meant he hunted and fished as part of his business.

As a mail-order business, this meant he could live in Maine and make money.

“The most important legacy of L.L.’s genius was the power of his personality. It transcended the buying and selling of products. His personal charisma based on down-home honesty, a true love for the outdoors and a genuine enthusiasm for people, inspired all who worked for him and attracted a fanatic loyalty among his customers,” said his grandson, Leon Gorman, whom he groomed to take over the company, which he did after L.L. Bean died on February 5, 1967, at 94.


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  1. Middle name is Leonwood. (Fix and delete this.)

    1. Grandson says Linwood. But I do appreciate that 999 times out of 1,000 you caught something. You are a true friend, even if we have never met

    2. Even Homer nods.
      His proofreader as well.
      Thank you Don and your readers for trying to get things right.

  2. I've been a Bean customer for 40+ years.

  3. Another satisfied long-time LL Bean customer service story: I owned an LL Bean raincoat and after 5 years the lining began to fall apart, so I called on the phone to see if I could buy the same exact raincoat, which I couldn't find listed in the current catalog. There was something similar, but it wasn't exactly the same. The woman at the other end of the line said to me, "The lining is falling apart? Send it back to us and we'll replace it with a similar jacket from the current catalog and give you a credit for the FULL PRICE you originally paid for yours." And I said, "But it's 5 years old and I've worn it a lot," and she said, "Doesn't matter. If you're not happy with it, we'll refund your money."

    When LL Bean says satisfaction is guaranteed, they really mean it. Of course, like many others who are loyal LL Bean customers, this past summer while vacationing in Maine over the 4th of July holiday, I had to make the pilgrimage to Freeport to visit the Mother Store. Awesome. Overwhelming. I've only felt that way once before in a store, which was when I went shopping in a huge Ron Jon surf shop in Florida.

  4. I was a happy customer until I became a 56 waist and they quit selling anything bigger than 46.

  5. My dad took the family to the LL Bean store on one of our camping trips. It was like a holy pilgrimage to him.
    I just liked walking around in the middle of all that cool stuff. This was probably 1968 or 1969.
    Everybody here in Seattle buys North Face or REI. I still buy LL Bean.

  6. Hey Don Surber,
    This is very nice and informative article you have shared here on How L.L. Bean became a shoe. I got much nice information about shoes. Thanks a lot for your nice article.