October 19, 2006

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L.L.Bean: The Making of an American Icon, by Leon Gorman (Harvard Business School Press, 2006, 304 pages)

Avid L.L.Bean customers will enjoy this book for its up-close look at the company and the man who founded it.

They will be bored stiff, however, by the businessy sections filled with talk of TQM and SPM and QATs. But then these sections ought to interest to MBA students.

Even in the down-home portions of the book, author Leon Gorman, former head of the company and grandson of founder L.L., tends toward company-newsletter-speak, with lines like “It had the potential to revitalize our leadership and to engage everyone at L.L. Bean in an exciting and successful future.”

Unless you’re a business student, you’re going to flip through those pages like you fast-forward through commercials on TiVo.

But you will, perhaps, settle in and enjoy the parts about Leon Leonwood Bean, born in 1872 in Maine and orphaned at age 12. He founded L.L.Bean in 1912.

By the time Leon joined the company in 1960 – which is where the book pretty much starts (we get no real look at L.L.’s childhood or early adulthood) – L.L. was a somewhat crotchety shortsighted old man (age 87) who was increasingly “out of touch with product values” (read: cheap).He was an elderly patriarch who wouldn’t hand over the reins but wasn’t really driving.

Things unsaid weigh more on the reader (this one anyway) than what is said here about L.L. “When he was in a good mood,” Leon writes, “it was fun to work with him.” “You could work with L.L. … if you knew how, because he was predictable in his reactions.” And later, about L.L.’s habit of yelling at kids who couldn’t catch fish, Leon writes “They weren’t fun times” but winds up with “I know that makes him sound mean, but he really was a good guy. He just couldn’t contain himself.”

He had “down-home charisma,” though – and “a big laugh and warm welcome for everybody” – wait – “except his two sons.” This is L.L’s “only dark side” according to Leon.

On top of this, manager Carl, who was L.L.’s son and Leon’s uncle, was “peevish and unpleasant to work with.” So all was not fun and games for Leon in the early days.

Probably the most important and most neglected idea in this early portion of the book is when Leon writes: “It’s a wonder the company functioned at all. In fact, it did because in reality it was being run by Ethel Williams and Jessie Beal, L.L.’s and Carl’s secretaries.”

Other points of interest to the casual reader come mostly in Part Four, which covers 1991 through 2000. This is when L.L.Bean joins the internet age (their first internet order was in 1996, a pair of hiking boots sold to a woman in Alaska), introduces children’s clothing, embraces the profitable women’s clothing market, and offers the L.L.Bean Visa card and the L.L.Bean Subaru Outback wagon (“made in the United States” – unlike most of their clothes). The Freeport Studio catalog, a spinoff company of women’s clothing, was born, withered and died.

To Gorman’s credit, he includes in the book many comments from company insiders, including plenty that are negative or at least not glowingly positive toward him – like one from an employee who thought Gorman would make a better vegetable farmer.

Not all scintillating reading, but pretty neat to browse through with an apple cider while wearing your Bean flannel and sitting on your Bean camp hammock. B-

— Lisa Parsons