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by Tony Moore; video by Joe O'Neill
If you’ve been to southern Maine in the winter, you’re familiar with the leafless gunmetal trees, the scattered islands out there to the east across water that looks like it’s just a degree or two away from freezing. You know heavy snow, and the biting wind charging through the narrow lanes of Portland’s hilly streets.
And you know L.L.Bean.
L.L.Bean is the Maine institution, and the company’s famous “Bean boots” define winter not just in Maine but across the country. The state and Bean are so linked that people have gone so far as to wonder “Is Maine, Maine because of L.L.Bean, or is L.L.Bean, L.L.Bean because of Maine?” And although an answer to that question might be out of reach, Steve Smith ’92 does put forth that the two “are inextricably linked.” And as only the fourth president and CEO in L.L.Bean’s 105-year history, he’d know.
Smith was a fine arts major at Dickinson, and he graduated with a physics minor. And although the Red Devil basketball star saw himself getting into architecture and structural engineering after Dickinson, he began his career in advertising. A computer algorithm might have a hard time coming up with a combination that says “liberal arts” more effectively than that one.
“I definitely am a good product of the liberal arts, and it’s served me incredibly well,” Smith says, noting that his major/minor combination was a great kickstarter to right-brain, left-brain mental activity. “The liberal arts … engaged my curiosity, and I do think from a leadership perspective, people who are successful in business have a natural curiosity—they question things, they want to understand how things work, why things have been decided or why things have happened the way they’ve happened. Dickinson prepared me for that really well.”
Something else that prepared him well was the launch-pad career he had before he moved into the most coveted corporate office in Maine. It all began in New York City, at J. Walter Thompson, an international advertising agency.
“I found myself really comfortable entering the marketing world with this sort of dual brain,” he recalls. “[I was] very comfortable in art and color and font and all those sorts of subjective components of marketing, and then also the very empirical data, research, insights-driven side of marketing.”
From there, Smith moved to Maine, where he rose to vice president of sales and marketing for Resort Sports Network. In 2002, it was on to Hannaford Supermarket, a division of Brussels-based international supermarket giant Delhaize Group. Thirteen years down the road—by way of Florida, Belgium, China and England, while climbing the ranks of Walmart, Walmart International and Walmart China—Smith was back in China as chief merchandising and marketing officer for Yihaodian, a division of Walmart Global eCommerce located in Shanghai.
“My career has afforded us phenomenal opportunities to move around the world, and we’ve done it as a partnership,” says Smith of wife Lynn. “Being a marketer, I love studying markets, I like studying people, I like understanding why people buy what they buy—so each one of those moves was really just an intellectual challenge of trying to understand a different culture, a different market, … and it was a fascinating intellectual adventure that had business attached to it.”
When Smith heard that a CEO search was about to get underway at L.L.Bean, he saw it as the first step in getting himself and his family back to Maine, something they had always thought about but had never quite imagined would be possible.
“Moving back to Maine is sort of a dream come true, because when I left Delhaize to join Walmart, I thought the door to coming back to Maine was closed,” he says, noting that both his daughters were born in Maine. “The move from China to Maine was incredibly stark—we went from a city of 26 million people to a state of a million people. At the same time, you can be in a huge setting, but it comes down to your family, your friends, your experience with school and your work environment.”
Smith is still settling in to what he calls “the best job in the state and maybe the best job in the country and maybe even the best job in the world,” but the job search ensured that while settling in might take a little while, fitting in was something that would be there from day one. Besides checking all the experience boxes, L.L.Bean management was crystal clear in its need to have the new CEO match up just right with the Bean culture and brand. So once they got through Smith’s resumé—chockful of sequential upward movement through corporate structures—it came down to Smith the man.
“I fit what they were looking for on a lot of different levels,” he says. “The company needs to become a bit more contemporary, become more innovative, try things, become a little more open to risk, and those are all things that I’ve demonstrated throughout my career.” And as a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Smith says the fit goes both ways: “To be a part of the L.L.Bean family in this great state, where you can hike and trail run and mountain bike and stand up paddleboard and kayak and fish and hunt, and you can do it all within an hour of your house, it couldn’t get any better."
Smith is only the fourth CEO in Bean’s long history, and he’s the first who hasn’t either come from the Bean family or worked his way up through the company ranks. So clearly the company was looking to switch gears, and shift into innovation mode, by adding him to the Freeport C-suite. But how do you shake up a 105-year-old company, and is Bean crazy to try something new when its products have been loved by so many for so long? Well, like the success of Bean’s products, it’s not rocket science, although if it were, they hired the right scientist to pull it off.
“Bean has been innovative for a long, long time,” says Smith. “But the products haven’t been marketed in a contemporary way, so just getting all of the amazing things that we’ve already created out to new markets and new customers is incredibly exciting for me.” Smith says he was inspired by a book written by former Bean President and CEO Leon Gorman, called L.L.Bean: The Making of an American Icon. “I found myself passionately inspired to bring the company focus back to our products. He was the ultimate outdoorsman, businessman and product merchant, and it was clear that channeling his vision back to a product focus could be rich territory for our future growth.”
All of those amazing things were born in 1912, when Leon Leonwood Bean (yes, there really was an L.L.Bean) came home from a hunting trip with cold, damp feet and decided to do something about it besides warm them by the fire. And soon after, his Maine Hunting Shoe was born. From that one product, the company Bean founded continued to grow and innovate quietly to address customer needs, and now Smith brings to L.L.Bean the double-barrel growth engines of online and international expansion, areas where he’s thrived over his career. But advancement efforts, regardless of the forms they take, still always come back to the person buying and wearing those Bean boots.
“Our innovation is incredibly pragmatic—it’s still problem solving,” Smith says. “It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake, it’s not high-tech and sexy; it’s usually really simple things that are making the customer experience a little bit better.”
On the L.L.Bean website, speaking of “not high-tech,” you’ll find the phrase “Nature never disappoints, and neither do we.” To Smith, the phrase represents the company ethos to perfection.
"The mission of the company is to inspire and enable people to get outdoors,” he says. “There is a transformative component to being out in nature, whether you’re on a mountain, in a forest, on the water—to be out in the world, out in nature, and especially now, getting away from screens and technology, it is deeply restorative to people. And when we say ‘nature never disappoints,’ it’s the second you get outside, you take a deep breath, everything just becomes right.”
An extension of that mindset can be found in L.L.Bean’s sustainability efforts, which have the company positioning itself at the forefront of environmental, water and land conservation, working with such groups as the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Nature Conservancy, Audubon and the National Park Service.
“It’s something that we have built into the organization,” says Smith, “and it’s something that we need to continue to commit to as the world continues to change.”
Smith didn’t get to where he is in his career by waiting for good things to happen, and he didn’t get there in one swift move, so his advice to students graduating this spring makes a lot of sense.
“Be bold, be ambitious, be curious,” he says. “I would think about a career as a lot of different building blocks, and as long as you’re learning something, either about yourself or about a trade, I would encourage you to take it and to dive in fully. And then know that you’re going to keep gaining experiences and it’s going to add up to something.”
For Smith, it added up to the perfect culmination of a career going in the right direction. And it finds him often in the nearby Brunswick manufacturing facility, where the company makes its famous boots, by hand, 3,000 pairs a day. (A lot of boots for sure, but never quite enough to keep up with the boots’ staggering popularity, which has ensured a 30,000-pair backlog.) It finds him in Bean’s fulfillment center, in Bean’s retail stores and in Bean’s huge flagship store in Freeport, a short drive from corporate headquarters.
The flagship store has a 16-foot Bean boot out front, welcoming customers into its downright cozy confines through doors without locks. The store never closes, ever, and you’ll find people wandering through the racks at all hours. During the day, the store is like a giant, lively ski lodge, but one where people can buy everything they would need to hunt, fish, float down a river or simply keep their hands warm on a cold Maine night. It’s full of people who look like they may have been raised in the building, and the staff treats them like family.
Today, an unseasonably warm February day, Smith walks through the store, easily the tallest person in a wide radius at 6’6”. Although it’s unlikely any of the shoppers know who he is, he smiles at everyone, engaging in little conversations with customers here and there.
Smith chats up an older customer, a man who has probably been shopping at Bean since before its new president and CEO was born. Smith asks him if he can help out, if the man needs any recommendations. The man gives Smith a once-over: he’s wearing untied Bean boots, a blue puffer jacket and jeans—more outdoor enthusiast than corporate bigwig.
“Oh, do you work here?” the man asks. It’s been a long journey getting here, one taking Smith around the world and back again. But yeah, he works here.
Published March 28, 2017