When an activist group last week called for a boycott of L.L. Bean to protest Linda Bean’s support for Donald Trump, the reaction of the granddaughter of the founder of the Freeport outdoor goods retailer didn’t surprise her political allies or business associates.

While others might have gone quiet, hoping to let the controversy die down, the 75-year-old Bean, decked out in a cheery red sweater and her family company’s famous hunting boots, went on Fox News to denounce those calling for a boycott as “bullies” who would hurt company employees in seeking to punish her for expressing a political viewpoint.

In doing so, she thrust the family business, which has largely operated without taking political sides, into a firestorm. President Trump tweeted his support for Bean, and encouraged people to purchase from the store, undoing the company’s efforts to stay out of the fray.

“She’s not a timid soul,” said Rick Bennett, who has been chairman of the Maine Republican Party for the past four years and is stepping down from the post this month. “She knows the best way to deal with people is directly.”

“Passion, energy, drive,” Bennett added. “She has all that in spades.”

Despite her passion for her businesses and for politics, Bean has never been one to want the spotlight, but her $30,000 donation to a Maine-based, pro-Trump political action committee pushed her into it anyway.

The Federal Election Commission said she violated donation limits in giving the funds to Making America Great LLC, triggering attention from the Grab Your Wallet boycott campaign against L.L. Bean. The firestorm of attention put the 105-year-old Freeport store in a national spotlight, with stories written by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and other national media.

The company insisted that Bean’s political contributions were her own, and separate from the company itself, despite her famous last name.

“L.L. Bean’s position remains the same: no political endorsements or contributions. Period,” a company spokeswoman said last week in response to the controversy. “As always, our top priorities remain making boots, selling products and serving our customers.”

Bean is one of six family members who sit on the 10-member L.L. Bean board, but she doesn’t play a management role in the company. Her own political runs were more than two decades ago. And while her political donations have been substantial, she hasn’t sought out publicity for them.

Backing Trump in itself was an act of defiance for Bean. Her late cousin Leon Gorman, who ran the company during its time of greatest growth, gave significant donations to former President Obama, Democratic and left-leaning candidates. And when people sought to punish her family’s company for her political leanings, she pushed back forcefully.

“It’s bullying me personally,” she said on national television. “It’s bullying now the company that didn’t give the donation. I gave the donation personally to a PAC to support Trump.”

A BELIEF IN LIBERTARIANISM

Associates say Bean’s drive, focus and protectiveness is evident in how she runs her own businesses, which span the gamut from wedding planning to lodging and even waterside tours – on Bean’s 42-foot lobster boat – of the Maine spots frequented and depicted by the Wyeth family artists. The businesses are grouped under the lifestyle umbrella company called “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine.”

But Bean, who shares the famous first two initials of her grandfather’s name, seems to be stepping back some. Even though she has given no sign of leaving the L.L. Bean board, last year she turned over many of her business enterprises to employees under an employee stock ownership plan.

Her personal wealth is impossible to determine because both L.L. Bean and Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine are privately held and don’t have to report profits or losses publicly. L.L. Bean last year did say that it had net sales of $1.6 billion in 2015, essentially level with the year before, when it announced that employees were getting bonuses of 3 percent of their annual pay, but beyond that, the performance of the company is hidden to the public.

Bean has held fast to conservative political views since her two unsuccessful runs for Congress – in 1988, when she lost in the Republican primary to a more moderate candidate, and 1992, when she lost to incumbent Tom Andrews, a liberal Democrat – in the state’s 1st District. Bennett noted that running as a Republican in southern Maine is likely to be a losing effort, but that didn’t stop Bean.

“It’s a very challenging district for us, but Linda is willing to do what she’s passionate about,” he said. “It’s always good to win, but she showed the value of fighting on.”

Linda Bean's Maine Kitchen & Topside Tavern is sited across from L.L. Bean's flagship store in Freeport. L.L. Bean Executive Chairman Shawn Gorman has said that a call to boycott because of Linda Bean's support of Donald Trump is misguided.

Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen & Topside Tavern is sited across from L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport. L.L. Bean Executive Chairman Shawn Gorman has said that a call to boycott because of Linda Bean’s support of Donald Trump is misguided. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

DONATES TO CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES

In those races, Bean opposed abortion, gay rights and gun control and backed increased military spending because it supported “a native Maine industry.”

Bean, who did not respond to a request for an interview for this article, has been a generous donor to conservative Republican candidates and causes, giving money to candidates such as Trump, Carly Fiorina and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul and his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Her donations to Trump included the $30,000 to the Maine PAC supporting his campaign; the PAC has since moved to re-establish itself as a super-PAC that can accepted unlimited donations.

State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, met Bean in 2012, when they both supported efforts to send a Ron Paul-dominated Maine delegation to the Republican National Convention that year. Brakey said he and Bean shared Paul’s vision of “limited government and liberty for the little guy.”

Brakey said he admires Bean’s support for libertarian ideals, when most people who can afford to give a lot of money to candidates do it to curry favor with insiders.

“If you want that (access), you don’t do it by supporting libertarian causes or by supporting Ron Paul in 2012,” Brakey said. “I think that says something about someone who truly believes what she believes and is not like so many people in politics who are just there to try to get close to the levers of power.”

He said his admiration for Bean grew when, after the group was ejected from the convention, she joined fellow Paul supporters in a walkout and kept trooping more than a mile from the convention hall in Tampa, Florida.

Bean, Brakey said, “will show up and get her hands dirty.”

‘ALL MAINE, ALL THE TIME’

Her connection to Maine and its iconic retailer has been important to Bean and played a big role in her success, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

The lobster industry has also learned from her example, McCarron said.

“She has shown the strength and power of branding,” McCarron said. “As a company, Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster has really been leveraging the whole Maine and L.L. Bean connection. It’s very powerful.” Bean backed her commitment to the state by concentrating on selling only Maine lobster that was processed here, McCarron said. Before Bean got involved in the industry, most lobster dealers had connections with Canadian counterparts because the U.S. fishery operated primarily from spring to late fall. In Canada, lobstering is regulated and key fishing grounds are open from late November through spring. So dealers usually combine lobsters from Maine and Canada to provide a steady supply year-round.

“Linda rejected that,” she said. “It was Maine lobster and she was going to brand it with the state.”

“With Linda, it will always be ‘All Maine, all the time,’ ” said John Hathaway, president of Shucks Maine Lobster, which developed a way to extract lobster meat from the shell without cooking the lobster, enabling chefs to use raw meat to prepare dishes and avoiding the sometimes rubbery texture when frozen meat is thawed and recooked. Bean invested in Hathaway’s business in 2008.

Bean also benefited from a dramatic increase in the amount of lobster pulled from Maine waters – the catch has risen to record levels in the past three years and stood at more than 120 million pounds in 2015. That allowed her to buy enough Maine lobster to build up an inventory of frozen meat and be able to supply it to customers year-round.

It also helped that she had money behind her. McCarron said, because dealers have to buy the lobster when it comes in, pay to process it and then build up that inventory of frozen meat. All that requires substantial capital to be able to shell out the money early and recoup it in sales later.

Bean set up restaurants to sell the lobster, mostly in rolls, and also established channels to retailers outside the state to sell the frozen meat, McCarron said. Some of the meat is also sold to other restaurants and lobster roll food trucks that have proliferated around the country.

“It all requires a finely tuned business plan,” and Bean has developed that, McCarron said.

At Shucks Maine Lobster, Hathaway said Bean’s investment helped him more than triple sales over the past eight years. Hathaway echoes McCarron’s praise for Bean’s focus on the state’s most famous export.

“She has been a relentless warrior for Maine lobster, not just lobster,” he said, noting that she backed the effort to have the state fishery certified as sustainable.

STEPPING BACK, NOT BACKING OFF

In his business, Hathaway noted, Bean did not insist on being given a board seat in exchange for her investment, although she has always been encouraging and willing to offer her advice when asked.

And, Hathaway said, he doesn’t expect Bean to back off, even if she steps back from day-to-day management of her businesses.

“Even though she is officially retired, Linda remains true to her Maine roots and continues to fight for the Maine brand and the Maine people,” he said.

Bennett said that reflects another of Bean’s admirable qualities – her relentless effort to learn. When she got into the lobster business, she sought out veterans of the industry for help, admitting that she needed to educate herself about the business.

But, he said, despite trying to learn from others, people shouldn’t expect Bean to follow a script of someone else’s design.

“In her heart,” he said, “I think she’s a rebel and believes in challenging the status quo.”

 

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