How L. L. Bean preserves back-woods appeal amid high-tech

Question: What $300 million company grew up around a hunting boot? Try this one: What large mail-order sportswear outfit stakes its success on 1,500 temporary workers?

One more: What retailer manages to make you feel like part of the family whether you're calling in with an order or a complaint?

It could only be L.L. Bean, the camping store, mail-order house, manufacturing company, and tourist attraction that draws customers from around the world and rang up sales of $304 million last year.

The company, now in its 75th year, tries to stay true to the ideals of founder Leon Leonwood Bean - emphasizing customer satisfaction, offering high-quality merchandise and value, and providing a lifetime guarantee on every product it sells.

But times have changed since the days when ``L.L.'' (as he's unfailingly referred to here) hit upon just the right idea for a warmer, drier, sturdier hunting shoe.

Situated in this little corner of Maine, L.L. Bean might seem out of place in today's world of bargain basements, foreign competition, and mail-order houses. But Bean, a privately held company, has grown steadily.

Company officials say that growth has come because Bean has been willing to modernize and streamline its operations, manage its resources more effectively, and maintain its commitment to the customer. Mostly what it comes down to, says D.Kilton Andrew, Bean's manager of public affairs, is its people - a dedicated, committed, eclectic bunch of employees that keeps the company going.

Leon Gorman, L.L Bean's grandson, has led the troops since 1967, when the founder passed on. Mr. Gorman has seen - and initiated - a generous share of change. When he joined the company in 1961, Gorman says, he was the only college graduate in the management staff. Now it's packed with college graduates and dozens who have MBAs.

Nowadays, Bean's warehouse is organized by complex computer networks. Sophisticated market research techniques are used to target appropriate audiences. And a product-testing staff puts each new product through a rigorous set of paces.

Tucked away off Main Street, about half a mile from Bean's famous retail store, is a massive complex that houses the company's warehouse and corporate offices.

Inside, men and women use forklifts and conveyer systems to pick, pack, label, and ship off mountains of goods to all corners of the continent every day. The work, both in the offices and in the warehouse, seems relentless.

But through it all, L.L Bean manages to project a down-home image that is hard to describe and harder to pin down. Despite the computers, the cavernous warehouse, the row after row of telephone operators, and the platoon of clerks who answer thousands of questions in the retail store, the customer is made to feel like a friend.

In fact, says Mr. Andrew, people who have never seen the operation picture Bean as a small, cozy store, with perhaps a couple of people answering phones. They like Bean's approach to retailing; that makes it seem as if they're ordering something from a close friend or relative.

According to Gorman, this is the image that L.L himself established, an image of ``honesty, love of the outdoors, and a genuine enthusiasm for people.'' As L.L Bean used to say: ``A customer is not an interruption of our work, he is the purpose of it.'' It is an image the company seeks to maintain.

Along with helping customers pick out equipment for a long-awaited camping trip, Bean's telephone operators will gladly discuss the weather on the Maine coast and have even been called upon to help name a customer's dog.

The friendly attitude is also evident in the Bean store on Main Street, which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and saw about 2 million customers, browsers, and pilgrims cross its threshold last year.

Inside, Don Amirault seems genuinely happy to spend half an hour teaching a young couple about binoculars. Other well-informed sales clerks can tell you almost as much about canoes, cross-country skis, or any of Bean's thousands of other products.

According to Andrew, Bean's image can be sustained only by high-caliber employees. He says the company's policy is that ``if you expect to have your employees take excellent care of your customers, you've got to take equally good care of your employees.''

It takes him about five minutes to list the benefits that go with a job at Bean, from a 33 percent discount on merchandise and life and health insurance to a generous bonus plan and use of a camping lodge in the north woods. Bean has 1,800 year-round employees. This time of year, the number swells to almost twice that.

In the bright, airy employee dining room overlooking a snow-covered field, young executives are heard discussing mountain climbing and sea kayaking. Here, Scott Howard, manager of order processing and telecommunications, speaks of how seasonal help fits into the company's structure.

The nature of the mail-order business presents the greatest challenge for the company, he says. ``How do you build systems and facilities to meet the peak demand, and manage to maintain a profit through the other nine months?''

His workers are just entering the Christmas rush. The day after Thanksgiving - the busiest day of the year - a battalion of 500 phone operators were expected to have answered about 70,000 calls.

Between the two holidays, they will log nearly a million calls. This compares with the slow time of the year, around July, when only about 40,000 calls come in during the month.

With this in mind, Mr. Howard says, the company's biggest asset is its corps of seasonal workers. They see to it that in the crunch of a hundred-thousand orders, the blue plaid shirt, size 15-plus, is delivered to Wichita and not the wool sweater and cozy slippers that are destined for Spokane.

``The key to [Bean's] success,'' he says flatly, ``rides on these seasonal employees.'' He says that the company ``knows how to bring employees in for a short period and quickly make them feel part of the family.''

There is an orientation and training program for these employees that lasts almost a full week and includes sessions on the company's history and its philosophical emphasis on the customer.

Howard says he was concerned this year about finding enough employees to handle the rush, because the unemployment rate in southern Maine is less than 3 percent. ``But this year there have been more applicants than ever. It amazes me that we are still getting the quality of people that we seek.''

Partly, he says, this is because many people hope to be among the 10 percent that will be asked to stay on after the holiday season.

What of the Maine hunting shoe that started all this?

According to Andrew, the company sold a quarter of a million pairs last year and rebuilt 17,000 more at a nominal charge for those folks who wanted to squeeze more years out of their investment.

Andrew says that that shoe and what it represents is ``the core of the operation, the central product. Everything relates to it. It's not the highest in style; it's a practical, functional piece.''

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