For years, I kept a copy of L.L. Bean, Inc.’s 100% guarantee, posted on a bulletin board in my office. My office has moved and my printed copy of the guarantee is filed somewhere, but I have not forgotten it. For years, L.L. Bean has been one of my favorite brands and one of my favorite companies. My most frequently used Visa card is an L.L. Bean branded version. I enjoy the benefit of building credit for future purchases at Bean when I use the card. For a variety of reasons, I don’t purchase as much from Bean as I used to, but I still respect the business and its family roots. I also continue to benchmark L.L. Bean as the ultimate customer service organization.
My interest in L.L. Bean was rekindled recently when I read Leon Gorman’s history of the company that his grandfather, L.L. Bean, founded. Gorman is the Chairman and former President of the company. In L.L. Bean-The Making of an American Icon, published by Harvard Business School Press, Gorman tells the definitive story of the company and articulates the values that he inherited and the strategy that he employed in growing the business into the giant of direct retailing that it is today.
Bean’s mix of products is no longer a complete match for my tastes. Gorman recounts the shift that they made in the 1990’s to dramatically change their business model by instituting a robust offshoring model of procurement. Many of Bean’s products have come down in price and in my opinion, the quality and design of some of them has suffered. Bean is known for its introductory and mid-tier outdoor goods and for its weekend casual/outdoor inspired clothing. They are also known for home and outdoor living products, of which I am a fan. Their clothing and outdoor gear isn’t as technical as I prefer and much of it is imported from the Far East. Of course, Chinese, and other Asian, goods are a mainstay many retailers’ lines, and these imports are difficult to avoid, but I still have a hard time buying stuff without reading labels. I am selective and attempt to minimize my Chinese purchases. I had some challenges several years back with L.L. Bean’s Direct to Business division. Horst Engineering used to get its corporate apparel from Bean, but now gets much of it from Bean’s archrival, Lands’ End. I don’t have any emotional attachment to the Lands’ End brand, but at the time, we needed to switch to a supplier who could consistently deliver the quality we needed and Bean had slipped up. My attachment to Bean is so strong that I was extremely disappointed when I had to make the difficult decision to move the business. We may try Bean corporate sales again someday.
The brand that is most consistant with my ethic is Patagonia. Their products meet the technical requirements that I desire and their environmental and business ethics are consistent with mine. There is no question that Patagonia is in a different tier of the market than Bean. Their products are more technical and premium priced. I’ve built a wardrobe of Patagonia gear by digging through bins at their outlet store, which interestingly, is located across the street from Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine. It would be amazing if Horst Engineering could adapt some of the sustainable business qualities that differentiate Patagonia. We have begun the journey, but it will be a long time before we reach our goals. Like Bean, Patagonia has a culture that is deeply influenced by people who love the outdoors.
L.L. Bean still gets my vote of confidence. Overall, they have made a huge difference in American business. I am proud of the fact that they are a New England company and that they are still a privately held family business. L.L. Bean and the Gorman Family have also done much for environmental causes and have generously supported one of my favorite organizations, the Appalachian Mountain Club. In his book, Leon Gorman does a fine job at explaining his approach to business and philantropy. He is honest about his struggles over the years and that makes his story even more interesting. Not every business grows like L.L. Bean. Sustaining that growth and remaining profitable is a challenge that they and every business face forever. I enjoyed his book and learning more about the guarantee that is a confident reminder of Bean’s quality and customer service. Their is nothing wrong with that.