Friday, September 28, 2007

The Beans of Maine

If Maine has an employer that is synonymous with the state, particularly to those coming from away, LL Bean would be probably be the one. The company began humbly, with Leon Leonwood Bean first developing products in his brother’s basement; later, he would open his small hunting store in Freeport. I doubt he ever imagined the company's meteoric rise, to where it sits today, as a world-renowned retailer.

More times than not, dropping an LL Bean reference elicits recognition, particularly when talking to someone in another state, or even country. Most tourists have visited Bean’s for shopping when visiting the Pine Tree State.

There’s a famous story that gets told to new hires, during orientation that might be apocryphal, but it’s been told so often that it is now considered part of the holy writ of the company.

When LL Bean developed his waterproof boot and had outgrown his brother’s basement, he acquired a small storefront in sleepy downtown Freeport. Legend has it that LL lived upstairs, above the store and had installed a bell outside the street level entrance, so when hunters came through during the night, headed north, they could ring it and he’d come down and wait on them, as they stocked up on supplies and other items for their hunting expedition.

Like many Mainers, I’ve done numerous seasonal stints for the company, picking merchandise, packing and during the winter of 2004/2005, I worked at their Peck Building phone center in Lewiston, taking calls from eager holiday customers.

This was my winter spent organizing my research and completing the final draft of my first book, When Towns Had Teams. I wrote each day from 5 am, until around noon and then headed in for the evening shift on the phones. I have fond memories of that winter stint, tired from my early hours at the keyboard, but flushed with excitement as my book took shape. This seasonal job helped supplement my meager income of that period, as I labored to get my book out the door.

The hours spent on the phones were a welcome reprieve from the isolation that accompanies the craft of writing. Many callers were thrilled to find out that they were talking to an actual Mainer, located in Lewiston, Maine. They’d ask about the weather (if it was snowing) and other aspects of Maine. While Bean’s is production conscious in all it does, it still allows phone reps the chance to chat a bit with customers. And the customers love it, too!

Maybe that’s why the company saw such strong results during their “spring season,” running from March to August. While other retailers are running flat, or even downhill with their sales, Bean’s continues to track upward, showing an eight percent increase during this period.

As a result, employees are looking at distributing $1 million in profit-sharing bonuses to employees and its customers will have free shipping on all orders until December 21st.

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