L.L.Bean President and CEO Stephen Smith spoke at Husson University’s Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The CEO of L.L. Bean recommended Thursday that anyone gifting the company’s products for the holidays buy them early due to national supply chain backups.

CEO Stephen Smith, who made the comments after speaking at a Husson University event in Bangor, said that the Freeport-based company is in a great place with its inventory levels now, but that they will run thin by mid-December.

Noting that concerns about supply chains were real, he recommended shoppers order items early and put backorders on items that are unavailable. About 70 percent of L.L. Bean’s sales are directly to customers, Smith said, primarily through online commerce.

“Shopping early, shopping now, definitely is critical,” Smith said. “We will be low in inventory by the time Christmas comes around.”

The comments from the CEO of one of Maine’s most prominent brands come as global supply chain challenges wrought by the pandemic empty store shelves and led to increased scarcity for numerous products, including many food products in Maine.

Smith, who was interviewed for the event by Marie Hansen, dean of Husson’s business and communications schools, spoke at length about his career and life philosophy in a talk attended by an audience of over 70 people.

Starting at L.L. Bean in January 2016 after previously working at a Walmart-owned company in Shanghai, Smith has now been the company’s CEO for nearly six years. During that time, he has reshaped its public image and guided it through some of the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

L.L.Bean President and CEO Stephen Smith spoke at Husson University’s Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

He said his goal upon assuming the role was to make L.L. Bean a more contemporary brand. He and executive chairman Shawn Gorman decided that the best way to do that was to emphasize the outdoor nature of their clothing. Out of that came the “Be an Outsider” campaign.

“That was really to get back to our roots as a business,” Smith said. “It’s driven by being outside.”

The spread of the coronavirus brought new uncertainty: the company’s 60-plus stores shut down during the early lockdown months of the pandemic. But online sales skyrocketed as people began to spend more time outside amid a nationwide surge in outdoor activities. Sales in 2020 were the best in the company’s century-long history. And 2021 is primed to be even better, Smith said.

“We clicked into the American psyche from a marketing perspective and a product perspective,” Smith said.

L.L.Bean President and CEO Stephen Smith spoke at Husson University’s Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

But with 2020 also came a divisive political climate, including what Smith described as the most disruptive election in American history, and the outcry from the death of a Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer that May.

Smith said he had tried to do what he could amid the social change around him. He has worked with business leaders in the Portland area to help underrepresented groups and support racial equity, he said, including by trying to create a more diverse workforce in his company and others.

The company’s employees and the public expected L.L. Bean to recognize what was going on in the world and play a positive role in it, Smith said. He had noted earlier that he had continuously emphasized safety during the pandemic, including delaying shipping by a few days if it meant keeping employees safe.  

As he spoke to an audience primarily made up of students on Thursday, he said he has significant hope for this generation of young people. Those who are 18-24 are using digital platforms to stay informed and create a better world, Smith said.

“To me, that level of engagement feels different and feels powerful,” Smith said.