Leon Gorman’s tenure leading L.L. Bean began quietly, perhaps befitting an executive known for being soft-spoken as he guided the company from its storied past to the kind of success his grandfather, the founder, couldn’t have imagined.
When the board elected him president little more than eight months after his grandfather died in 1967, the news “received two column inches in The Portland Press Herald, about the same amount of space the paper would give to a baked bean supper announcement at our local Congregational Church,” he recalled in his 2006 memoir, “L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon.”
Mr. Gorman, who was 80 when he died of cancer Thursday in his home in Yarmouth, Maine, hadn’t initially seen himself as an obvious successor when he joined the family business in 1961.
A Time magazine article the following year referred to Mr. Gorman, then 27, as the “heir apparent grandson,” he wrote, but “my being ‘heir apparent’ was apparent only to the writer.”
Before he asked his grandfather for a job, Mr. Gorman’s retail experience had consisted mainly of a six-month stint at Filene’s in Boston, learning the rudiments of floor salesmanship, keeping inventory records, and crisis management.
The latter came in handy, he wrote, because in the early 1960s “the business was slowly running down, though it still had some year-to-year momentum.”
Building on the company’s strengths, and developing new ones, he took L.L. Bean from annual sales of $4.75 million when he became president to more than $1.5 billion when he stepped down in 2013 to become chairman emeritus.
The success of Mr. Gorman and the company is measured in more than sales and profits, however. L.L. Bean became one of the most recognized retail names in the country and abroad, its catalogs spreading the image of Maine as much as the company’s products — some little changed since its inception in 1912.
L.L. Bean’s rise to prominence turned its home base of Freeport, Maine, into a tourist destination, and its flagship store into the anchor for a thriving hive of shopping outlets along the community’s main street. Wearing L.L. Bean clothes rooted in outdoor pursuits became a fashion statement, and the company’s image was so intertwined with the state’s that in his memoir, Mr. Gorman quoted former Maine governor John McKernan Jr., who once mused: “Is Maine Maine because of Bean, or is Bean Bean because of Maine?”
Mr. Gorman “was a boss, mentor, coach, community leader, dear friend, and inspiration,” Chris McCormick, president and CEO of L.L. Bean Inc., said in a statement on his death. “Most importantly, he was the most decent human being you would ever want to meet. We will all miss him greatly.”
Presiding over a company that went from a single store with 100 employees to an empire of two dozen locations and more than 5,000 workers, Mr. Gorman became one of Maine’s wealthiest residents.
He donated thousands of acres of land to create and expand parks, and gave more than $6 million to environmental organizations such as the National Park Foundation and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“We’re incredibly grateful for Leon Gorman’s lifelong commitment to protecting the Maine that we all love,” Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a statement. “Without Leon, Maine wouldn’t be the place it is today environmentally and economically. His extremely successfully business defines Maine for people around the world.”
Born in Nashua on Dec. 20, 1934, Leon Arthur Gorman was a son of the former Barbara Bean, whose father founded L.L. Bean, and John Gorman, a vice president of the company.
Mr. Gorman wrote that he majored in liberal arts at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, from which he graduated in 1956, and while going to school worked for two summers at L.L. Bean doing odd jobs, picking blueberries, receiving freight, and helping customers find a good fit for shoes.
After college, he worked for Filene’s and served in the Navy before returning to ask his grandfather, Leon L. Bean, for work.
“Although he didn’t have anything for me to do, he put me on the payroll at $80 a week,” Mr. Gorman wrote. “My Navy experience may have convinced him I could be of some use. Or my college education. Also, he’d never turned down a family member looking for a job.”
L.L. Bean, along with his son and second-in-command, Carl, who was Mr. Gorman’s uncle, were wary of change. Mr. Gorman forged ahead, becoming the first company official to attend trade shows across the country.
As was his habit in the Navy, Mr. Gorman carried a pocket-sized black notebook so he could jot down ideas.
“The list of to-do’s grew to more than 400 notations during that first year at L.L. Bean.,” he wrote, with the list ranging from buying a mail-opening machine to finding faster ways of dealing with returns and reworking office layouts.
Once Mr. Gorman became the company’s leader, L.L. Bean began posting double-digit annual growth.
The company’s fortunes were bolstered by a rise in environmental awareness and an accompanying interest in outdoor activities.
Sales increases also came from unanticipated sources such “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Lisa Birnbach’s 1980 spoof that described L.L. Bean as a “prep mecca.”
Mr. Gorman wrote in his memoir about hiring able MBAs and an industrial psychologist to supplement his business acumen, which sprang more from on-the-job training and intuition.
The company weathered economic downturns and became an early Internet presence, launching a website in the mid-1990s.
Online business now exceeds traditional telephone and catalog sales that served the company from its early days, when L.L. Bean was known mainly for its signature rubber-soled hunting boot.
The company became the subject of case studies for Harvard Business School, whose press published Mr. Gorman’s memoir.
Through all the changes during his 46 years as president or chairman, Mr. Gorman was resolutely low-key.
“Oh, we don’t have a grandiose marketing plan,” he told the Globe in 1975. “We sell products that work, that we like.”
Six years later, wary at first of following the multiple- location lead of retailers such as Eddie Bauer, Mr. Gorman told the Globe: “I’m not sure we know very much about running retail stores.”
Mr. Gorman leaves his wife, the former Lisa Davidson; a son, Jeffrey; two daughters, Ainslie Boroff and Jennifer Wilson; two stepchildren, Shimon and Nancy Cohen; a brother, James Gorman Sr.; and seven grandchildren.
The company’s Freeport store, which has rarely closed during its decades of operation, will be closed for Mr. Gorman’s memorial service at 10 a.m. next Sunday in the Westbrook Performing Arts Center in Westbrook, Maine.
In his memoir, Mr. Gorman listed ideals L.L. Bean tried to live by, such as integrity, service, respect, perseverance, and honoring its outdoor heritage. “Values are fine,” he added. “But it’s what you do with them that counts, to borrow from Robert Frost.”
“Not surprisingly,” his daughter Jennifer said in a statement, “the personality traits that describe our company fit my Dad to a tee.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@ globe.com.