Outdoor gear retailer L.L. Bean said Tuesday that it has tapped retail veteran Stephen Smith as its next president and CEO.
Smith’s appointment comes after a year-long search that launched upon president-CEO Chris McCormick’s retirement announcement.
Smith has had executive roles at Wal-Mart’s international businesses and at an e-commerce venture in China, and has spent time in Maine before in positions with Resort Sports Network and Hannaford grocery stores.
The appointment of a retail veteran from outside the company is a major move for L.L. Bean, which has deep roots in Maine and remains privately held. Smith is the fourth president for the company and the first who wasn’t born a Bean or worked his way up the company ladder. McCormick, for example, started working at L.L. Bean in 1983 and himself made news in 2001 when he become the first non-family member to take the reins as president-CEO.
McCormick oversaw a decade of growth at the retailer, expanding beyond its catalog approach to open more stores nationwide. The company pivoted well from its paper catalog business to e-commerce and was among the first retailers to offer free shipping and free returns on any size order in an effort to combat online shopping cart abandonment.
The company this summer mourned the death of Leon Gorman, a grandson of founder L.L. Bean who is credited with forging the retailer’s strict policy of good customer service, including allowing returns of years-old merchandise.
The retailer has remained strong, recently even experiencing a surge in popularity, to the point of having supply issues of its iconic hunting boot, which has become a favorite of hipsters, college kids, and even fashion mavens, as well as of its traditional customer.
The question before Smith will be how to continue to grow the company without losing sight of the traditions that have been the source of its success for more than a century.
Columbia University retail studies business school professor Mark Cohen has told Retail Dive that L.L. Bean has been impressive in its dedication to its loyal customer base, eschewing shiny objects like fashion trends or going public.
“Good for them that they haven’t wandered away from that core competency,” Cohen says. “They’re going very slowly, waiting for the cues their customers are going to give them. They have the luxury of doing things carefully, methodically, and thoughtfully because they don’t have to please investors. They have probably made some mistakes and have probably discovered some price points that just don’t work. I give them tremendous credit for saying— ‘we’re going to do what the customer permits us to do.’”