BRUNSWICK — They call it the “Bootmobile,” a 13-foot tall, 21-foot long L.L. Bean boot mounted on a truck.
The strange-looking vehicle is sure to turn heads as it makes its way around the country in celebration of the company’s 100th birthday.
Although the “Bootmobile” was the attention grabber at the company’s anniversary kick-off on Tuesday, the Bean boots on nearly everyone’s feet were the real testament to the success of the company’s iconic product.
Most people know the story of how the company founder, Leon Leonwood Bean, decided to go into the boot business after returning from a hunting trip with cold, wet feet. Since 1912, the original Maine Hunting Shoe has remained one of L.L. Bean’s best-selling items, even as the company has grown to sell clothing, home furnishings and a myriad of outdoor products.
Last year, Bean reported $1.44 billion in annual sales.
For the past 22 years, the Bean boots have been produced in a building on Industrial Parkway in Brunswick. Last year they made 400,000 pairs – a new record, thanks to a surge in the boot’s popularity.
John Camelio, operations manager at the Brunswick plant, said the boot has become popular with college-aged customers who increasingly wear the boots year-round. He said a shearling-lined boot has seen sales increase most dramatically, something he said could be related to the popularity of Ugg sheepskin boots.
The boots are taking off so much, he said, that L.L. Bean has had to hire close to 100 employees since the end of 2011 to meet demand.
Bean’s boot makers also repair the iconic product, replacing soles and laces and patching holes on about 10,000 pairs a year. Jack Samson, senior manager for manufacturing, said most customers want to keep the original leather upper on their boots because, over time, the leather softens and molds to a perfect fit.
Occasionally, he said, the company will receive a pair of ancient Bean Boots with a red rubber sole, the color used during the company’s early days – a testament to how much customers love their old boots, but also how long they can last with proper care.
This year, L.L. Bean is rolling out a new version of that original Maine Hunting Shoe, complete with the old-style logo, leather laces and red sole.
Bean employees appear proud to produce the iconic boot, and tenure at the Brunswick facility averages 18 years.
While assembled outside the building to watch the departure of the “Bootmobile” on its maiden voyage, L.L. Bean Chief Executive Officer Chris McCormick asked employees what they thought of the boot on wheels.
“Isn’t it cool?” he asked.
Immediately one employee shot back with a more appropriate description: “It’s wicked cool.”