• Otter Views: L.L. Bean Centennial

    by Tom Stevens

    Spotting what looked like a classic hunter green “chamois flannel” among the shirts on a resale rack, I checked the label. There in familiar bold stitching were the two Maine pines, the L.L. Bean logo, and the simple declaration: “quality guaranteed since 1912.” The shirt proved a size too small, but I decided not to let 2012 pass without marking its maker’s centennial.

    It seems fitting that L.L. Bean turned 100 during an election year in which American industry and ingenuity drew praise from every podium. If any company embodies those bedrock American virtues, L.L.B. is it. Its products are well researched, well-made, sensible and durable. And the company backs its wares with a refund guarantee on any product a buyer deems unsatisfactory. In 2012, that’s rare.

    On the other hand, a certain irony colors the Bean centennial. Despite all the campaign happy talk of American pre-eminence, the nation has sent millions of jobs overseas and has ceded to others many of the products, services and industries pioneered here. The global economy has rendered “Made in U.S.A.” a relic of a bygone century.

    As President Obama and other U.S. policymakers ponder a way forward, they might take heart from L.L. Bean’s motto: “Inspired by the Past, Built for the Future.” In its 100th year, the firm has become a successful American and global hybrid reminiscent of its first product.

    That was, of course, the “Maine hunting shoe” developed in 1912 by company founder Leon Leonwood Bean. A lifelong outdoorsman, Bean wearied of trekking through the snowy Maine woods on cold, wet feet, or so the corporate story goes. In an “aha” moment, he stitched leather uppers to the rubber soles of worker’s boots to create waterproof footwear that was moose bog worthy.

    Like many good ideas, the boots got off to a rocky start. Of the first 100 pairs Bean manufactured and sold, 90 were returned after the rubber soles separated from their leather uppers. In a move that would be deemed foolhardy in today’s venal corporate suites, Bean had vowed to refund the purchase price on any defective boots.

    “We guarantee perfect satisfaction in every way,” is how his ads had put it. When 90 pairs of boots came back, he nearly went broke.

    But instead of telegraphing a lawyer, Bean honored his refund vow, thus earning moose bog cred way more valuable than the boots. He also sent the failures back to the cobbling bench, where trial and error eventually produced a gold standard prototype still marketed today.

    The 1912 hunting shoe fiasco convinced Bean that “perfect satisfaction in every way” might be possible only in heaven. In the Maine woods, extensive field trials, honest customer service and exemplary workmanship would have to suffice. Bean’s new motto became “high quality products backed by excellent service.”

    Marketing didn’t make it into the motto, but it deserves equal mention. When Bean started selling his boots, he scoured municipal records for the names and addresses of Maine hunting licensees, whether in-state residents or not. All were mailed a three-page flyer extolling the boots. It was the Obama voter registry of its day.

    By 1933, when the classic “chamois” shirt debuted, the L.L. Bean catalog had grown to 52 pages, and the company’s mail was 70 percent of the local post office’s volume. Its new sophistication notwithstanding, the firm still maintained a “night bell” at its Freeport store. Customers arriving after hours could ring this to summon a watchman “or even L.L. himself,” the story goes.

    By 1951, sales volume and customer foot traffic enabled the store to stay open 24-7, 365 days a year. “We have thrown away the keys to the place,” its catalog exulted. The night bell was retired, and L.L. could stay in bed under his Hudson Bay blankets.

    By 1961, the old man was 88, sales had stalled and rivals had risen. The company faced some of the same challenges the nation faces today, including an aging work force that averaged 60 years old. L.L. could have sold the firm and hit the silk, but he hired his forward-looking grandson instead. Expansion and innovation followed.

    Like America, L.L. Bean no longer makes all its products, but many are still hand-crafted in Maine. This year’s catalog features a dozen “100th Anniversary” replicas of past Bean trendsetters, ranging from the trout knife ($49) and coastal duck call ($149) to the centenary bamboo fly rod ($3,495). All are “Made in U.S.A.”

    Despite their five-figure price, all ten cedar and canvas canoes sold out swiftly, and buyers seemed satisfied. One thrifty yankee blogged: “If you amortize the cost of this over 100 years, you won’t find a cheaper canoe anywhere.”

    Sorry I missed the boat on that one, but I’ll keep looking for the chamois shirt in hunter green.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 26, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views

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