FREEPORT — From the shop floor of the L.L. Bean boot factory to the grand homes of some of Maine’s wealthiest families, Mainers are mourning the death of Leon A. Gorman, who transformed the company from a folksy, mail-order catalog business founded by his grandfather into a globally known supplier of outdoor gear and apparel.
Gorman, whose remarkable life touched Mainers of all social classes, died Thursday of cancer, surrounded by family at his Yarmouth home. He was 80.
Gorman was widely known in Maine for his philanthropic work and his involvement in numerous causes and civic organizations. An outdoorsman who could have been the cover model on any number of famed L.L. Bean catalogs, he focused much of the company’s charitable efforts on conservation and recreation.
The company experienced explosive growth during his 34 years as president and 12 years as chairman of the board, with revenues rising from under $5 million in 1967 to $1.6 billion in 2013. Gorman cultivated a company brand defined by its customer service and commitment to the outdoors. The brand became so powerful that it has shaped Maine’s image nationally, and its economic impact is felt far beyond the company’s 5,200 year-round employees, said Sen. Susan Collins, a longtime friend of Gorman.
Around the country, the iconic rubber-soled hunting boot has become as much a symbol of Maine as the lighthouse and lobster, she said.
“That is what Leon’s unique, visionary leadership did,” she said.
Gorman was a softspoken man with a brilliant mind and deep concern for his employees and the environment, said former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, whose friendship with Gorman dates to the 1950s when they were students at Bowdoin College and members of the same fraternity.
“He did not speak much or loudly,” Mitchell said. “But what he said always carried great influence.”
In honor of his legacy, L.L. Bean’s flagship retail store in Freeport, which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, will close and lock its doors for four hours on the day of Gorman’s funeral, Sept. 13. The company has closed its flagship retail store only twice: after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and after the death of company founder Leon Leonwood Bean, Gorman’s grandfather, in 1967.
Gorman had served four years in the U.S. Navy before joining the family business in 1961. Six years later, after the death of his grandfather, he was the company’s president.
Many employees wondered if the company could survive without the charismatic “L.L.” in charge. Bean, who died at age 94, had been involved in almost every aspect of the company’s day-to-day operations since he found the company in 1912.
Yet the company was struggling at the time, Gorman said in a 2006 interview with the Press Herald after his memoir, “L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon,” was published. “L.L. and his son, Carl, held onto all the authority, yet weren’t doing anything. The product line and catalog merchandising and operations were all going downhill. Profits were marginal. If I hadn’t come along, the company would have gone out of business or, more likely, been sold under adverse circumstances.”
PRIZING EMPLOYEES AND CUSTOMERS
Gorman is widely credited with reviving sales through a new vision for the company that embraced technology and diversification, while holding fast to its customer-first founding values.
He hired aggressive young managers and pioneered changes in the mail-order business that brought an annual growth rate of nearly 20 percent during his tenure, according to remarks made during Gorman’s 1994 induction into Babson College’s entrepreneurs hall of fame. He launched innovations in database management and set a bar for customer service that remains a national model.
“To L.L. Bean, the customer is sovereign,” the Babson testimonial said. “L.L. Bean offers an unconditional guarantee: They will exchange anything for any reason. Orders are processed in two or three days, unlike most mail-order companies where two weeks is typical. And if customers have to call for any reason, they will find operators so friendly and courteous that they may feel as if they’ve made a new friend.”
Often the subject of Harvard Business School case studies, L.L. Bean prizes both employee and customer.
Elaine Rosen, former president of the UNUM Life Insurance Co. of America, said she witnessed Gorman’s leadership style while working with him on projects with the United Way and the Preble Street Resource Center.
During meetings, Gorman would let others talk and focus his energy on listening to each individual. Then he would ask a few questions and lead the group to the heart of the issue at hand, she said.
Gorman was so reticent that some people underestimated him, said Barry Mills, past president of Bowdoin College, where Gorman served as a trustee. But Gorman delved into the college’s most complex and challenging issues, such as undertaking an analysis of its academic programs, Mills said. Gorman urged the private college to accept more Maine students, most of whom needed significant financial aid.
“He spoke with clarity and common sense,” Mills said. “He was a real Mainer.”
Gorman’s leadership helped create one of the state’s mainstay employers. In the mad scramble by retailers in the early 1990s to save money by outsourcing customer service to offshore operators, Gorman insisted that L.L. Bean keep and expand its call center operations in Maine.
Today, the company ranks third among Maine’s top private employers.
AGGRESSIVE GROWTH STRATEGIES
Gorman’s leadership through the early 1970s happily coincided with a rise in recreational activities and a growing awareness of environmentalism, according to industry analysts. He had already increased the company’s advertising budget and introduced modern order-processing and fulfillment systems.
By 1974, he had computerized many segments of the business and relocated its boot manufacturing into a new building in Brunswick. That year, the company built a 110,000-square-foot distribution center in Freeport. Today, that building is 1 million square feet.
Then in 1981, the company got a boost from Lisa Birnbach’s “Official Preppy Handbook,” which described the retailer as “nothing less than a prep mecca.”
That helped sales continue to build through the 1980s, but they came to a screeching halt during the recession in the early 1990s. The recession, coupled with a looming postal rate increase of 30 percent, led Bean to lay off 10 percent of its workforce.
Rather than retrench, Gorman pushed the company forward, launching a new line of children’s wear and retail operations in Japan, which was then a hot market and boasted 11 stores by 1997.
Sales had rebounded, and in 1996 broke the $1 billion mark for the first time.
That also was the year that the company launched online ordering via its website – a prescient move. Thirteen years later, its online orders outpaced its telephone and catalog orders. The company prepared for the boom in sales by building a 650,000-square-foot plant with the capacity to process 27 million items per year.
Ironically, Gorman wasn’t fond of digital technology. Although he respected its power in the marketplace, he never liked to use a computer, describing himself as “computer illiterate” and confessing he wrote his book in longhand.
Toward the end of his reign as chief executive, Gorman saw the launch of subsidiaries such as the Freeport Studio line of contemporary women’s fashions and an expansion of retail stores in the United States. The company now has 24 retail stores in 14 states, including its flagship store in Freeport, and four new stores are opening this year.
Gorman stepped down as president in 2001 and named Christopher McCormick as his successor.
In an email the company sent to employees Thursday morning, McCormick said Gorman had been a mentor and friend to many.
“Most importantly, he was the most decent human being you would ever want to meet,” he said.
In 2013, Gorman stepped down as chairman of the board of directors. His nephew, Shawn Gorman, a great grandchild of the company founder, took his place.
Jennifer Wilson, one of the Gorman’s three children, said in an email that her father’s life and character were intertwined with the company he built and loved.
“Not surprisingly, the personality traits that describe our company fit my Dad to a tee,” she wrote.
While the company continues to grow, its success today would not be possible without the work of Leon Gorman, said Rosen, the former UNUM president.
“He’s the person who took over his grandfather’s company and made it into a legend,” she said.
The mood was somber Thursday among employees at the Bean retail complex in Freeport. Most veterans on the retail staff had stories of personal encounters with Gorman, whose gentle manner made him approachable, said Ed Maillet of Brunswick, who has worked in the bike, boat and ski department for 30 years.
“This is very devastating news for employees,” he said.
Bruce Gridley of Portland, who has worked in the department for 22 years, said the Gormans were avid cyclists and would often come in to buy gear. Despite his great wealth, he said, Gorman was a “common man” who put people at ease.
“We felt a bond with the guy,” he said.
PHILANTHROPIST AND COMMUNITY FRIEND
Gorman was as deft with a fly rod as he was with running a billion-dollar company. He insisted that top personnel join him on outdoor excursions every year for both a corporate retreat and an opportunity to test new gear.
“I wanted L.L. Bean’s leadership committed to the outdoors,” Gorman told the Press Herald. “I remember testing first-generation waterproof, breathable rainwear on a St. John River trip one year. We were all wet for a week.”
Gorman’s commitment to the outdoors extended beyond market testing and leadership training. In the past five years, L.L. Bean donated more than $6 million in support of the National Park Foundation, Appalachian Trail Conference, Maine Audubon and others, the company said. For decades, employees have maintained a section of the Appalachian Trail by clearing brush and building pathways and lean-tos. Under Gorman’s guidance, the company pledged to become greener, adopting a recycling program, energy-efficient practices and product stewardship.
Perhaps the most striking example of Gorman’s commitment to the environment came from his 1990 trip to Mount Everest, where he reached a camp 21,325 feet above sea level. He and others participating in the Mount Everest Peace Climb made the trek during the week of Earth Day, clearing debris from the mountain and supplying the base camp. The effort was supported by a $100,000 grant of clothing and gear from the company.
Gorman and his wife, Lisa, also supported many other charities besides environmental groups. Through the 1980s, the Gormans led the region’s United Way campaigns. Together, the couple established a local society for families that contributed $10,000 or more to the United Way. They also established a fund to send local immigrant and minority youths to summer camps.
Other initiatives included helping to build the YMCA in Freeport, and support for organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, the Maine Community College Foundation’s Leadership Council and the Preble Street Resource Center.
Leon and Lisa Gorman first became involved with Preble Street about 15 years ago on a project to build a drop-in center for runaway teens. Beyond donating a significant amount of money, the couple become personally involved with the project and the people it served, said Mark Swann, the organization’s executive director.
HIGH NET WORTH, BUT HUMBLE LIFE
Leon Gorman also donated his labor. Every Wednesday morning for more than 12 years, Gorman – who was known simply as “Leon” – helped cook breakfast for 400 people at Preble Street’s soup kitchen. There, he was just another volunteer who started off as a dishwasher and worked his way up to the grill, where he cooked eggs, hash browns and pancakes. When breakfast was over, he would pull the stove away from the wall and get down on his knees and scrub the grease that had splattered behind the stove, Swann said. Most volunteers wouldn’t bother.
He said Gorman became an important adviser for the nonprofit and used his experience to help it develop a strategy and a business model.
“We were incredibly fortunate to have had him as a kind of mentor to the agency,” Swann said. “He was a wonderful man. I will miss him terribly.”
Gorman also was a supporter of education. Besides being a trustee at Bowdoin, he and his wife also led fundraising efforts for the Maine Community College System to ensure education opportunities for Mainers.
In politics, Gorman was not partisan and gave money to candidates in both parties. On one issue, casino gambling, he played a key role. He opposed gambling in part because he worried that casinos would degrade Maine’s image. For nearly a decade he bankrolled political campaigns to defeat referendums to legalize gambling. The effort failed in 2003 when voters approved slot machines for Bangor Raceway and later a casino in Oxford.
He was one of the wealthiest people in Maine – amassing a fortune estimated at several hundred million dollars – but he continued to live in Yarmouth in the same village house on Portland Street where he grew up.
He was often seen walking with his dogs on Main Street or a trail along the Royal River. Gorman donated money to rebuild the town’s library and to build a museum celebrating the town’s history. The museum is named after his mother, Barbara Bean Gorman.
During his walks, Gorman would greet people, including strangers, said Linda Grant, who chaired the Yarmouth Historical Society when it built the museum.
“He was a very humble person,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know who he was.”
Gorman is survived by his wife, Lisa; son Jeffrey Gorman; daughters Ainslie Boroff and Jennifer Wilson; two stepchildren, Shimon and Nancy Cohen; several grandchildren; and brother James Gorman Sr.
Visiting hours will be Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Conroy-Tully Crawford South Portland Chapel. A memorial service will be held Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Burial will be private.