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Updated: March 8, 2024

'Stay lean and focused': LLBean leader offers business, branding tips at Craft Brew Summit

Steve Smith at podium Photo / Renee Cordes Stephen Smith, president and CEO of L.L.Bean, shared five tips for business longevity at the New England Craft Brew Summit in Portland on Thursday.

Build your brand and know your purpose, Stephen Smith, president and CEO of L.L.Bean Inc., urged a business masterclass of sorts at Thursday's New England Craft Brew Summit.

“Every action that you take either adds or subtracts from your brand,” he said in the first of five "business lessons for longevity."

More than 400 people from dozens of breweries across the region came to Portland for the all-day summit, hosted by the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

Sharing insights about a brand that dates to 1912, Smith recalled a more recent time when the Freeport-based company sought to reclaim its purpose. Looking to promote a love of the outdoors and outdoor pursuits, L.L.Bean launched the tagline "Be an Outsider" in 2017 and still uses it today.

Photo / Renee Cordes
Hundreds of brewers were in attendance at Thursday's gathering.

“Everything we do is in service of this purpose,” he added. “You can’t plan for your business if you don’t know who you are, why you exist, what makes you different and what your brand stands for."

He reminded brewers to “think and act like the brand you aspire to be.”

Smith, who joined L.L.Bean in 2016 as the first non-family leader, was clad in Bean Boots and a jacket from L.L.Bean’s 2021 collaboration with menswear designer Todd Snyder. 

During the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Smith said that while his company isn't immune to the ups and downs of clothing tastes, the company never uses the "F" word, for fashion. The topic came up as Smith discussed product and raw material shortages, underscoring that the company will never sacrifice quality.

“We run out of stuff all the time, which is incredibly frustrating,” he said. “If we run out of something, in general we will not rush it through our supply chain system because that’s where corners get cut.”

Other recommendations he offered: focus on business cycles and planning; "stay disciplined and lean," even during growth years when your annual goals are easily achieved; surround yourself with the best people; and seek out opportunities for collaboration and and learning from your communities and personal network.

Noting the value of spending time with peers and competitors, Smith said a silver lining of the pandemic has been the relationships he has built with CEOs of other Maine-based businesses.

“Not only were we all wrestling with pandemic pressures, but we were also seeing racial and social inequities and we needed to find a forum to influence change and gain support,” he said. “We rallied together as a CEO group that stands as one of my strongest support systems today.”

As for L.L.Bean's $50 million revamp of its Freeport flagship campus, Smith told attendees that "your minds are going to be blown a year from now" by the changes.

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