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A story to live by

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Liz Walz, Columnist
March 1, 2014
Filed under Columns

A few weeks ago, if you had suggested that the L.L.Bean story contains a wealth of lessons for our industry, I would have been skeptical.

I can probably list more ways in which L.L.Bean is different from the average marine dealer than they are the same. But when I received “L.L.Bean: The Making of an American Icon” and began reading it, my perspective on the company changed dramatically.

As founder, Leon Leonwood Bean did a lot of things right. He created a company in 1912 based on a passion for improving the outdoor experience and the lives of his customers.

He was committed to testing the products he sold in the outdoors to ensure their quality and function was at the highest level.

He personally backed all the products he sold with a 100-percent satisfaction guarantee, a tradition that continues to this day.

And it was under his leadership that Bean began a profit-sharing program to recognize the contributions of his employees to the company’s success.

But L.L. was far from a perfect man. The book begins in 1960 as the 25-year-old author, Leon Gorman, discovers this, coming to work for his 87-year-old grandfather, L.L. Bean, and his 60-year-old uncle, Carl Bean. While this part of the story takes place more than 50 years ago, most anyone who has worked in their family’s business will relate to the young man’s passion for new ways of doing things, and the frustration he feels when they are stifled. It’s the classic story of what not to do, and here are a few of its lessons:

Know when to let go: L.L. Bean did not believe in retirement. He remained as principal of the company until his death in 1967 at the age of 94. Though he had once been adventuresome in business, by the time Gorman joined the company, L.L. was comfortable with the company as it stood and resisted change in almost any form. As a result, the business was on the decline.

Prepare for the future: While L.L.’s values created a strong foundation for the company, he did little to prepare it for his passing. He failed to create a senior management team. For better or worse, he personally made most of the decisions for the company right up until his death. While his son worked in the business and inherited it from his father, Carl died of a terminal illness just eight months after his father.

Create a plan: Neither L.L. nor Carl used a budget or other planning tool. “Last year’s income statement was the de facto plan for this year,” explained Gorman. “Everything had to be done more or less as it had been the year before, or the company would lose its equilibrium.”

Leon Gorman assumed the helm of L.L.Bean in his early 30s and transformed it into a $1.2 billion business before he retired in 2001, largely because of his preparation in the years leading up to this time. Here are the lessons behind those strategies.

Educate yourself: Without a mentor, Gorman set out to train himself. He seeks out opportunities to learn about the outdoors, inviting himself along on hunting and fishing trips along with employees and suppliers. He volunteers to take on customer correspondence, learning the answers to customers’ questions about the business. He is the first person in the company to attend apparel, footwear and sporting goods trade shows. He subscribes to outdoors magazines.

Take notes: Gorman starts a black book of ideas for improvement. There are more than 400 ideas by the end of his first year with the company, most of which are implemented once he assumes the helm and contribute to dramatic growth in the first few years of his leadership.
Study the numbers: While Gorman didn’t have a budget to consult when it came time for him to lead the company, he had studied its sales records, which gave him a clear understanding of what was driving its success.

But what is perhaps most inspiring is that a business with humble roots can survive the tremendous challenges of succession, growth, fluctuating markets and technological advances – challenges with which we are too familiar in the marine business – through the guiding force of its rock solid values.

Liz Walz is director of membership and marketing for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. To learn more, visit www.mraa.com or email her at liz@mraa.com.

 

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