By Sam Roberts
New York Times news story
Leon A. Gorman, who transformed L. L. Bean from his grandfather’s folksy store and catalog business into a billion-dollar global outdoor-gear retailer and made its signature rubber-soled hunting boot as synonymous with Maine as lobster, died on Thursday at his home in Yarmouth, Me. He was 80.
The cause was cancer, the company said.
Mr. Gorman joined Bean, a family-owned company, as an $80-a-week treasurer in 1961 and became its president in 1967 after the death of his grandfather, Leon Leonwood Bean, the founder. He held that post for 34 years, then served as chairman for 12 years before retiring in 2013 with the title chairman emeritus. He was succeeded as president and chief executive by Christopher J. McCormick and as chairman by Shawn Gorman, his nephew.
One of Maine’s richest residents, Mr. Gorman still lived in the same house in Yarmouth in which he was raised.
Mr. Gorman was an accomplished fly fisherman and ardent conservationist. He donated more than $6 million to the National Park Foundation, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other environmental groups and thousands of acres to state parks.
“Without Leon, Maine wouldn’t be the place it is today environmentally and economically,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Like his grandfather, he was an avid practitioner of the outdoorsy existence and rigorously committed to customer satisfaction. Those two sensibilities combined to produce the ethos that may have informed his grandfather’s decision in 1912 to return the money paid by 90 of his first 100 customers after the leather accidentally separated from the rubber soles of their hunting boots.
In 1990, Mr. Gorman participated in the Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb, an expedition to Mount Everest involving American, Soviet and Chinese climbers to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day and to clear the debris left by scores of previous expeditions. His company supported the operation with a $100,000 grant.
When Mr. Gorman became president, L. L. Bean had one store, in Freeport, Me. He modernized, computerized and expanded operations to process orders more quickly, and added inventory to include sporting goods and home furnishings. The changes generated annual growth of as much as 20 percent.
In 1995, the company presciently began taking orders on its website. Within 13 years, online sales outpaced orders placed by telephone and catalog. (Mr. Gorman acknowledged being computer illiterate and wrote his 2006 memoir in longhand.)
By 2013, L. L. Bean was selling more than $1.6 billion worth of clothing, gear and other merchandise through its 24 retail stores in 14 states (in addition to the flagship store in Freeport), its website and its catalogs. Last year it distributed 50 distinct catalogs to customers in every state and in 170 countries.
Some of the company’s 140,000 products, like the Field Coat and the Chamois Shirt, have been around for decades. Prototypical modern versions are tested in Bean’s own laboratory.
With 5,000 workers, Bean is one of Maine’s top private employers.
In his memoir, “L. L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon,” Mr. Gorman wrote, “My proudest accomplishment is growing my grandfather’s company from employing less than 100 people in 1960 to employing tens of thousands of good Maine people over the generations; building a company based on solid Maine values of integrity, customer service, respect for people, a love of the outdoors, and above all, perseverance.”
Leon Arthur Gorman was born in Nashua, N.H., on Dec. 20, 1934, the son of John Gorman, a company vice president, and the former Barbara Bean.
He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1956, trained in Filene’s department store in Boston and, after a stint in the Navy Reserve, joined the family firm. In 1967, L. L. Bean was succeeded by his son Carl, who died a few months later. Mr. Gorman, whose own father had died, became president when he was 32.
Survivors include his wife, the former Lisa Davidson; his son, Jeffrey; two daughters, Ainslie Boroff and Jennifer Wilson; two stepchildren, Shimon and Nancy Cohen; several grandchildren; and a brother, James Gorman Sr.
Mr. Gorman’s death prompted tributes from Maine’s business and political leaders, who described him and his company as vital to the state: as an employer, as an economic engine there and as a promoter of Maine’s way of life and values. Former Senator Olympia J. Snowe said he reflected “the very soul of Maine.” Senator Susan Collins hailed “his belief in our state’s future and his determination to preserve its legacy.” And Ms. Pohlmann said his company defined Maine for the rest of the world.
“When people think of Maine,” she said, “they think of L. L. Bean: a place to get your gear and get out in nature.”