Remembering L.L. Bean’s Leon Gorman: ‘He ran this company as something larger than a business’

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FREEPORT — For only the third time in company history, the L.L. Bean flagship store will be closed for four hours Sept. 13 to honor Chairman Emeritus Leon Gorman.

Gorman, the grandson of company founder and namesake Leon Leonwood Bean, had cancer and died on Thursday, Sept. 3 at his home in Yarmouth. He was 80 years old.

The store, which has been open 24/7 since 1951, will be closed on Sunday at 10 a.m. during the memorial service for Gorman. It has only closed twice before, after the deaths of L.L. Bean and President John F. Kennedy.

Gorman became president of the company in 1967 before retiring in 2001 and becoming chairman. He held that position until 2013.

According to L.L. Bean’s website, Gorman brought tremendous growth to L.L. Bean. As president, he grew it from a $4.75 million company to one worth more than $1 billion.

Carolyn Beem, the company’s senior public affairs manager, said Gorman’s contribution to the success of L.L. Bean is part of the reason the store will be closed in his honor.

Other Bean employees said it’s important to note not only that Gorman grew the company, but how he did it.

“He ran this company as something larger than a business,” John Oliver, the vice president of public affairs, said, by making everyone who worked at Bean feel like an important part of the operation. He treated everyone not only with respect, he said, but like they were a friend.

“You walk around the business with Leon as a CEO and it’s not simply everyone knows Leon, but Leon knew so many of them by their first names and who their children were and their parents,” Oliver said.

Oliver said Gorman made employees, whether they were executives or salespeople, feel “good about what they were doing.” He said it created pride within the company.

“Everyone felt like they worked directly with Leon,” Oliver said. “Folks were proud to say they worked with Leon Gorman.”

Gorman, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, also always treated customers fairly, according to Oliver. The company is known for its 100 percent satisfaction guarantee, which Beem said was started by Bean when the company was founded in 1912.

“(Gorman) certainly brought a lot of depth to my understanding of how companies interact with its customers and the community,” Oliver said.

Tom Armstrong, L.L. Bean’s chief merchandising officer, said customer service was very important to Gorman.

“He always stayed connected to the customer,” Armstrong said.

Gorman eventually did some things differently than his grandfather, but not until after he took over the company.

“Leon had lots of ideas on how to do things better,” Oliver said. “He just started taking notes, knowing his grandfather wasn’t open to too many changes.”

According to Oliver, by the time Gorman was CEO he had a list of 100 things to do.

“He saw opportunities where others saw challenges,” Oliver said.

Through everything, Gorman made sure to preserve the quality of Bean’s products.

“The company was founded on a problem-solving product, and he maintained that,” Beem said of the company’s popular hunting shoe.

Armstrong agreed.

“The products we sell need to work,” he said. “Style and fashion come and go, but the product maintained its intended use.”

Armstrong said Gorman tested most of the company’s products before they were available for sale. He said Gorman was even doing this up until quite recently.

Armstrong recalled a time when Gorman was CEO where they went on a five-day ski trip with other L.L. Bean employees to test backpacks and other products. The temperature was 15 degrees below zero and at the outset of the trip, Gorman went to snap his pack around his waist when the buckle broke apart because of the cold. Armstrong said Gorman made do, but later adjusted the pack’s design.

“It illustrated the character of of working with what you have and not complaining to others, and the determination to finish the trip,” he said.

Armstrong said it’s rare for CEOs to be out in the elements testing products the way Gorman did. He said Gorman not only wanted to make sure everything worked, but he was passionate about being outdoors.

“It was a part of his DNA and it showed in how he ran the business,” Armstrong said.

While Bean was mostly interested in hunting and fishing, Gorman evolved the company through his love of kayaking, skiing, running, and hiking. Gorman summited Mt. Rainier and Mt. Kilimanjaro, and climbed 21,000 feet up Mt. Everest while testing a new L.L. Bean jacket.

Running a business and spending all his free time outdoors and with family took up a lot of Gorman’s time, but he still made time to give back to the community. The Preble Street Resource Center in Portland was very important to him; he volunteered there every Wednesday morning for 12 years. In 2009, Preble Street named Gorman its volunteer of the year.

“He was right there with the rest of the volunteers and was working the hardest of any of them,” Oliver said. “He rolled up his sleeves, he was part of the effort.”

Oliver said despite Gorman’s enormous wealth, he liked to do hands-on volunteering, instead of donating large amounts of money.

“It’s rare and I’m afraid it’s way too rare these days,” Oliver said. “It’s what’s so compelling about his story.”

Oliver said generosity and kindness were present in everything Gorman did, and Armstrong and Beem agreed.

“What you’re seeing is a genuine human being,” Armstrong said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Leon Gorman, chairman emeritus of L.L. Bean, died Sept. 3 at home in Yarmouth at age 80.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.