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L.L.Bean has gone outside its ranks for the first time to pick a chief executive, on Tuesday naming veteran retailer Stephen Smith to lead the 103-year-old company.

And Smith, 45, who starts in early January, said he already feels the pressure.

Until now, the Freeport, Maine, retailer has always filled the top job from within the company or founding family. Smith joins L.L.Bean from Yihaodian, an online grocer in China, where he was a chief merchandising and marketing officer.

"There's a bit of, 'you have to prove yourself,' " Smith said. "You have to establish your credibility and do that carefully."

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Smith will inherit a growing company that can't keep up with demand for its signature rubber-toe boots. There is currently a backlog of more than 10,000 orders for Bean Boots, with some popular styles and sizes not available until late February.

Retail analysts have cast the shortage of Bean Boots, which started last year, as a good problem. It draws attention to the brand and consumers learn that the boots are handmade by Maine workers, which makes them more coveted.

But the situation may also frustrate shoppers unable to fulfill holiday wish lists, forcing them to find substitutes elsewhere.

L.L.Bean expects to sell more than a half-million pairs this year, up from about 450,000 in 2014. Total company revenues hit $1.6 billion last year, up 3.2 percent from the prior year.

Stephen Smith, 45, comes from a stint at Yihaodian, an online grocer in China.
Stephen Smith, 45, comes from a stint at Yihaodian, an online grocer in China.L.L.BEAN VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

In addition to handling the boot crisis, Smith said one of his biggest challenges will be to enter the tight-knit company on the right foot.

Melanie Kusin, vice chairwoman of the executive search firm Korn Ferry in Los Angeles, said outside candidates are often valued for bringing new perspectives and fresh ideas but also have to carefully navigate longstanding cultural dynamics.

"Anyone coming into a business like that has to have enormous respect for the institution and the family that built it," Kusin said. "This is their house. You want to energize the population, but gain the trust of the organization."

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Two out of three past chief executives at the company were members of the Bean family.

Leon Leonwood Bean invented the Bean Boot in 1911 and served as chief executive of the company until his death in 1967. His grandson, Leon Gorman, succeeded him until 2001, when he took on the chairman position. That year Chris McCormick, then a 28-year L.L.Bean veteran, became the first nonfamily member to take the helm. McCormick is retiring at the end of the year.

The appointment is so outside the norm that current chairman Shawn Gorman, great-grandson of the founder, said he was surprised Smith landed the position. In a memo to employees, Gorman also said the Bean family and the board "unanimously agreed" that Smith was the right choice.

"It's a pretty significant change for L.L.Bean," Gorman said in an interview Tuesday. "The reason we feel confident about him is his leadership style, that it's collaborative, transparent, and empowering. We think he's very well suited to lead here because of those skills."

Smith said he plans to act as both a student and steward of the brand, tapping the expertise of a team of veteran executives at the company. One of his immediate tasks will be to execute a goal L.L.Bean laid out earlier this year to triple its stores in the United States to at least 100 by 2020, he said.

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Smith grew up in New York and moved to Amherst when he was 15. He graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with a degree in art history.

Smith previously lived in Maine while serving as vice president of sales and marketing for Resort Sports Network in the late '90s. He later became director of marketing for Hannaford Supermarkets in Portland in 2002.

The new CEO has also held a number of international positions over the years, including roles with a Hannaford sister company in Belgium and Walmart International in China.

"It's very logical career progression for me," Smith said of the position. "It's exactly what I wanted. It's a dream to come back [to Maine]."


Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.