Shawn Gorman, Chairman at L.L.Bean
On Beanness and Maineness: Meet the new chairman of the board at L.L.Bean, who tells us, “You don’t just fly to the top here as a family member. You pay your dues.
The story goes that back in 1976, when Shawn Gorman, the new chair of L.L. Bean’s board of directors, was a tall ten-year-old boy playing baseball on his dead-end street in Exeter, New Hampshire, his Uncle Leon came for dinner. This Uncle Leon was the grandson of company founder L.L. Bean—and the same Uncle Leon who would sit at the helm of Beans for some 40 years. While the adults visited inside before dinner, Gorman and his friends got busy catching baseballs next to his neighbor’s house. This is when a huge bird flew down from the sky and smashed into the neighbor’s picture window. Gorman knew just what to do: he picked the dead bird up and brought it home to his Dad and uncle, who said they had a partridge on their hands. Then Leon proceeded to clean the bird, feather it, and dress it for the stunned neighbor.
What Gorman remembers most about that afternoon is the way his neighbor kept saying, “The president of L.L. Bean just dressed my bird!” It was the first time Gorman understood the magic of Beans up close. He’d always known his uncle ran an outdoors company up in Maine, but Gorman had never thought too much about it. Now it all clicked for him: he was impressed that his uncle was a real outdoors man who knew how to feather a partridge, and he was equally struck by the big deal his neighbor was making over the fact that Leon had cleaned the bird himself.
Gorman and I now sit in his wood-paneled chairman’s office off Casco Street in Freeport. He took over the role in 2013. He’s wearing a black and red plaid flannel shirt and jeans—one of the unofficial uniforms inside the low slung building. Gorman tells me that dressed partridge or not, when he graduated from college, he had “no intention” of working at Beans. His father, Jim Gorman, was a long-time engineer at AT &T, and although Jim sat on the L.L. Bean board, having Shawn work at Beans wasn’t part of anyone’s master plan.
Gorman ended up taking a fairly low-level marketing job in the company almost by default. Then he liked the job more than he ever thought he would. At this point in the story you might be inclined to say the rest is history. But Gorman had to work his way up in the company for 20 years. “You don’t just fly to the top here as a family member,” he says. “You pay your dues.”
Gorman grew up in the marketing department at Beans. During those early years he and his wife, Cari, had a son, Owen, and then twin girls, Amelia and Chloe. “Initially,” he says, “it was, what can my next job be to advance my career? How do I move up the ladder and support my family? But I always knew in the back of my mind that it would be good to maintain a family member in a leadership role here.”
What excites Gorman the most about working at Beans is that even after 100 years, Beans “is still committed to the same hardworking, honest Maine values. Same focus on customer service. Same loyalty to the Maine brand. We want to be your trusted guide to the outdoors.”
What separates Beans from the rest of the field? Quality and service are what Gorman calls “the granddaddies of them all.” Then comes Yankee ingenuity. “Our products have high functionality. Take the original Bean boot. It was designed to solve a problem. You were either getting wet feet in the field with leather hunting boots or clammy feet in the field with rubber hunting boots. So L.L. designed the perfect answer. A boot that fixed both of those problems at once.”
Here is something new Gorman knows about his customers: they want more accessibility. This means they want more retail stores, not just the flagship in Freeport. “The majority of Americans,” Gorman says, “still like to do their shopping inside brick and mortar. And it’s very hard to sell your brand through retail channels if you don’t have many stores. The web is growing. But people can’t touch and feel the product on the internet.”
Customers can get the full measure of their tents before purchase.
If you’ve ever stepped inside Beans’s original store in Freeport, you might understand its pull on the customer. Call it a campus, with separate rooflines and dozens of departments stocked with every outdoor gizmo you’d ever need to survive on your own in the wilderness, and then some. You can go stare at the stuffed black bears downstairs in the children’s department. Or sit by the trout pond and watch the speckle-bellied fish. Take a fly-tying class. Learn how to set up your new tent. It’s this energy at the Freeport campus that Gorman thinks Beans still needs to figure out and capture. “How do we replicate the flagship store?”
The company also recently began a significant shift in their customer strategy. They’ve gone back to what Gorman calls their “wheelhouse,” which is the 35- to 45-year-old outdoors person. For a while the Beans customer was trending a fair bit older than this, but now Beans now wants you to picture Olympic snowboarding champion Seth Wescott (whom Beans sponsors) in your mind. Wescott is quintessential Beans: in his late 30’s, hardworking, personable, and out in the snow every day. “It’s time,” Gorman says, “to focus on this younger audience and all the stuff they like to do in the outdoors.”
Maybe you’ve seen the teenagers in your neighborhood wearing Bean boots again? The boots are everywhere, just like they were back in the 1980’s when Beans reached a certain apex in fashion appeal. Go visit a college campus, not just one in Maine, and you’ll find that the kids there are wearing Bean boots too—styling the boots with undone laces and wool knee socks that peek over the top. For Gorman, it’s all about a marriage of functionality and relevance. “Beans feels like it’s really relevant again,” Gorman says and smiles. “It’s been a big push.”
Two years ago Gorman thought there was a lack of focus on a common selling strategy at Beans. “Not enough of a unified approach,” he says, “in how we went out to the consumer. Our ideas were often siloed.” Then Gorman took on a new role as director of brand communications and worked with the directors of marketing and merchandising to think collaboratively instead of independently. Now that old silo thinking is mostly gone. “We aren’t competing for resources anymore,” Gorman says, “as much as banded together to focus on external competition.”
I ask what gets him up in the morning. “Every day,” he says, “I’m so charged up to see how genuinely focused employees are on their work. It sounds cliché but it’s almost a higher calling. Their goal is to help people who love the outdoors make the most of their time out there.”
And the mission? “It’s not about ‘hey let’s go out and grab market share.’ It’s about ‘hey, we have a meaningful purpose here.’ Spending time outdoors is good for people. It’s exciting as a retailer. It’s so much more than how many widgets you sell.”
Another thing you need to know about Gorman is that he’s a self-identified gearhead. Plain and simple. “I like technical products,” he says. “I love GPS’s and the new snowshoes. All the gear. So when I go to the store, I go to the bikes and boats and skis.” In fact, there’s a small point of tension at Gorman’s home around just how much L.L. Bean gear it’s possible for him to accrue, all in the name of brand loyalty. “My wife, Cari, gets after me. I’m such an outerwear hound. I have so many jackets, and I just cleaned my closet to make room for more jackets.”
Gorman has never worked on the product side at Beans, but one of the other things he enjoys most about his job is attending product line reviews. “It’s so much fun to see how the product develops,” he says. Last year customers in Japan asked for a mono-color Bean boot: red top, red bottom, or green top, green bottom. When the boots came out at line review, Gorman says they surprised everyone in the room “by how good they looked.” Beans decided to offer them to the U.S. market in 2013, just as the Red Sox won the World Series.
So then the Beans product designers got busy taking the new red boot and stamping it with a Red Sox World Champion logo. When Jonny Gomes, the Red Sox left fielder, wore his custom red Bean boots on late-night television with Conan O’Brien, the TV host liked Gomes’s boots so much he asked Gomes to take them off and put them up on the desk. “Beans customers,” Gorman said, “began calling, saying ‘get me those boots.’” But Beans had promised the Red Sox an exclusive run for the team.
Three big black and white photographs sit behind Gorman’s desk, and each speaks to the family legacy that Gorman is a part of. Here’s a photo of L.L. Bean and his wife, Clare, and L.L’s father, Jack, at a Maine fishing camp holding a string of trout. Here’s a photo of L.L. with his grandchildren, including Gorman’s dad, Jim. And here’s one that includes Gorman’s Uncle Leon. “I like,” Gorman says, “how I can look up and see the generations.”
Shawn Gorman, L.L.Bean’s Chairman of the Board
As chairman of the board, Gorman’s still very interested in the company’s branding and financial strategies, but he’s also deeply involved in board governance. He likes to think of the company as a 747 jet airplane: the large, extended Bean family gets to “paint the plane any color they want and configure the seating. But they hire a flight team to fly the plane, and then they need to stay out of the cockpit.” Shawn likens himself to a kind of gatekeeper between the plane’s cabin and cockpit—sometimes he sits in the co-pilot seat, sometimes he’s back in the cabin adjusting seat belts on passengers.
“Chris McCormick,” Gorman says, “runs this company. He’s the CEO. And we need to make sure that employees understand this.” But McCormick and Gorman do what Gorman calls a dance. Gorman is in McCormick’s office “all the time,” sitting in on meetings of heads of divisions. “Over 5,000 employees depend on the company to make the right decisions,” Gorman says.
He thinks family businesses have a distinct advantage, in that they operate for the long term. “We think of stakeholder value. Not shareholder value,” he adds. “At Beans we don’t want anyone chasing short-term profitability in place of long-term sustainability.”
To that end Beans is always considering its local and global footprint. They use sustainably harvested paper for their iconic catalogues. The new retail stores are LEED certified, and the company is also converting its fleet of trucks to biodiesel. “Without the outdoors,” Gorman says, “we don’t have a business. So we have a real vested interest in maintaining the resources.”
The Maine mystique is alive and well in many of Beans’s products. The Bean boot and Bean tote bag are the #1 and #2 best-selling items in Japan. “Both of these products are still made locally in Brunswick,” Gorman says. “There’s something about ‘Made in Maine’ that resonates globally right now. Maine is hot. Outdoor Magazine says you’ve got to put Portland on your bucket list of travel. Then Travel and Leisure ranks Portland number five on its list of ‘America’s Best Cities for Hipsters.’”
If Maine is hitting the sweet spot of some cultural zeitgeist, Gorman wants the state to “have many more of these moments. We are one of the largest employers here, and growth means a larger workforce, which means creating more jobs for Maine. I love this state.”
Then he reminds me of something Jock McKernan, Maine’s 71st governor, once asked: “is Maine Maine because of Beans? Or is Beans Beans because of Maine?” No matter which way you fall on this, Gorman says there’s a strong connection between the two. It’s an alchemy Gorman calls, “Beanness and Maineness.” And Gorman wants to keep it that way.
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