Gary Comer was born in 1927 in Chicago.
He founded the mail order firm Lands' End in Chicago in 1963. The original products offered were sailboat hardware
and equipment. In 1978 the company warehouse and telephone
operation was moved to Dodgeville, Wisconsin. By then
Lands' End was offering clothing and the catalog emphasis
was moving in that direction. Between 1978 and 2002
Lands' End experienced excellent growth, went public
and began expanding abroad. Comer stepped down as
president in 1990 but remained chairman of the board.
In 2002 Sears purchased Lands' End. At the time Lands'
End's regular work force was about 4,000 people. In
2006 Gary Comer died, a victim of prostate cancer.
Comer was born on Chicago's South
Side in 1927. He was the son of a railroad employee
and a homemaker. The Chicago
Tribune (2006) reports that ( October 5,2006,
|"He was an indifferent student at Paul Revere Elementary
School and Hyde
Park High School. He learned to sail at a Chicago Park District beach house. A few years later he was a world-class
sailor, winning a number of competitions,
including the North American Championships
and a bronze medal in the Pan American games."
After high school Comer worked at
odd jobs for a while. Then, in 1950, he obtained a
job in the Chicago office of Young
& Rubicam, one of America’s
leading advertising agencies. He spent ten years at
Young and Rubicam and during that time he became an
In 1960 Comer quit Young and Rubicam
and spent the next year traveling throughout Europe. Comer was 33 years old and dissatisfied with his work situation.
Years later he remembered that year in Europe
as follows (Comer, "Before the beginning
"In retrospect, the
real beginning of Lands' End probably lies interred
with the bones of some distant ancestor of mine,
who passed along those genes compelling
me toward total independence."
"The idea for the company
though, appeared in the winter of my discontent,
bumming in the Swiss Alps around Davos. I read "The Magic Mountain' and contemplated whether there
would be life After 33, and what it might
"One thing, I did not
want to go back to the job I left ( but did
go back for one year) and I wanted to
start a business, something to do with
my hobby, sailboat racing."
He then returned to Chicago and went back to work for Young and Rubicam
for a year while preparing to go into a business of
his own. During that year he met his future wife,
Francie Ceraulo, and married her in 1962.
Years of the New Business
In 1962 Comer took the first step
toward starting his own business. He went to work
for Murphy and Nye Sailmakers in Chicago.
The agreement was that Comer and the owner, Dick Stearns,
would start another business as partners. The only
question was what kind of business that would be.
And it was up to Comer to figure it out as he worked
for Murphy and Nye. It didn't take Comer long to realize
that the customer buying sails from Murphy and Nye
could be customers for other products sold by a new
business that he would start (Comer, "Before
the beginning and after").
In the Fall of 1962 Comer experimented
with his idea. He bought sailboat fittings and advertised
them for sale in a new magazine named One Design Yachtsman
(Comer, "Before the beginning and after")
In the Spring of 1963 Comer, Stearns,
Comer's close friend Buck Halperin and two of Stearns'
employess other incorporated Lands' End Yacht Stores
operating rent free out of a basement of an old building
on the Chicago River in Chicago's
old tannery district. It was basically a mail order
business although products were also sold on the premises
of the basement store. It targeted the sailing market.
The product line consisted of racing sailboat equipment,duffle
bags, rainsuits, sweaters and other clothing.
The company was originally named
Land's End. But there was a typographical
error in the first catalog. The word LAND'S was incorrectly
spelled as LANDS'. The partners couldn't afford to
have the catalogs reprinted with the corrected spelling.
So the misplaced apostrophe stayed there. Lands' End
became the name of the company.
The partners agreed that Comer would
be president of Lands' End. After all, this was his
dream and perhaps the most critical asset was his
copywriting ability. But Comer had a lot of on-the-job
learning to do. One of his weaknesses was financial
management. Another was the nuts and bolts of running
a catalog business. This weakness was overcome by
enlisting the help of a retired mail order executive.
As Comer put it years later (Comer, "Before
the beginning and after"):
|"We'll always owe a huge debt
of gratitude to Tom Filline. After years of
running the entire Sears mail order operation,
he kindly consented to advise us, back
when we were just a very small and unkown company.
He taught us how to merchandise product, how to
structure lines, when to take chances.
He was the priceless ingredient that just happened
to be in the right place, at the right time, when
we needed him most."
Comer made creative contributions
of his own beyond writing compelling copy. One creative
strategic move was to seek out and, in effect, partner
with small suppliers. There were many of them at the
time, most being relatively new start-ups. Comer offered
to give them advertising copy they could use for their
own product marketing. Essentially what he did was
give each supplier-partner copies of the pages featuring
that company's products that were used in the Lands'
End catalog. Comer would create a separate cover and
index for each company . In return, the suppliers
would pay Lands' End for each special page and would
sell their hardware to Lands' End at the lowest discount
rate. (Comer, "Before the beginning and
Lands' End did not make a profit
until its third year of operation. But Comer was reasonably
sure that the business would eventually be profitable
because of his strategy (which he referred to as,
"Our basic premise for winning customers."
The elements of that strategy were (Comer, Lands'
End,January 15,2007, pp 2-3):
things we believe in"
||"Ship every order the
day it arrives."
The store was opened in August of
1963 . The first catalog was produced the second year
with the name "Lands' End Yachtsman's
of the Company
In 1978 Comer moved the warehouse
and telephone operations to Dodgeville, Wisonsin.
That move followed a decision in 1977 to focus on
selling clothing and soft luggage. Thirteen of the
40 pages in the 1977 catalog were devoted to clothing
and luggage was introduced. (Graf, Lands' End, Inc.:
A Brief History).
Following the move to Dodgeville
Lands' End produced a statement of its business principles
which it then used as a promotional tool. The principles
were (Graf, p.25):
||Principle 1 - "We do everything we can to make our products
better. We improve material, and add back features
and construction details that others have taken
out over the years. We never reduce the quality
of a product to make it cheaper."
||Principle 2 - "We price our products fairly and honestly.
We do not, and have not, and will not participate
in the common retailing practice of inflating
mark-ups to set up a future phony 'sale'."
||Principle 3 - "We accept any return, for any reason, at any
time. Our products are guaranteed. No fine print.
No arguments. We mean exactly what we say: GUARANTEED,
||Principle 4 - "We ship items in stock the day after we receive
the order. At the height of the last Christmas
season, the longest time an order was in the house
was 36 hours, excepting monograms, which took
another 12 hours."
||Principle 5 - "We believe that what is best for our customer
is best for all of us. Everyone here understands
that concept. Our sales and service people are
trained to know our products and to be friendly
and helpful. They are urged to take all the time
necessary to take care of you. We even pay for
your call, for whatever reason you may call."
||Principle 6 - "We are able to sell at lower prices because
we have eliminated middlemen; because we don’t
buy branded merchandise, with high protected mark-ups;
and because we have placed our contracts with
manufacturers who have proved that they are cost
conscious and efficient."
||Principle 7 - "We are able to sell at lower prices because
we operate efficiently. Our people are hard-working,
intelligent and share in the success of the company."
||Principle 8 - "We are able to sell at lower prices because
we support no fancy emporiums with their high
overhead. Our main location is in the middle of
a 40-acre cornfield in rural Wisconsin."
In 1985 Lands' End began publishing
the catalog monthly. In 1990 Lands' End introduced
three specialty catalogs – Lands'End Kids, Coming
Home (bed and bath), and Buttondown (bed
In 1986 Lands' End went public. Comer
retained a controlling interest, presumably in part
so that the company would continue to be run according
to his principles. The stock split two-for-one in
1987 and again in 1994. When the company was sold
to Sears in 2002 Comer still owned 52 percent of Lands'
End (Comer, August, 2005).
Foreign operations began in 1987
when Lands' End started servicing Canadian customers.
Catalogs were mailed to potential customers in the
in 1991 and in 1993 Lands' End opened a warehouse
and telephone center in the U.K. In
1994 the company started a catalog business in Japan
and in 1996 a German operation was begun (Graf, p.
In 1994 Lands' End became the leading
specialty catalog retailer in the United States. The
legendary L.L. Bean fell to second place.
of the Company that Gary Built
In the latter half of the 1990s Lands'
End allowed Illinois State University
management professor Dr. Lee Graf to study the company
from the inside. The result was a case study that
became part of the package accompanying the seventh
edition of Samuel Certo's university textbook Modern
Management. Dr. Graf found a business built upon
and permeated by the vision and values of Gary Comer.
Among the highlights of his report were the following
(As summarized by Richard Hattwick).
A Values Based Company with
a Stakeholder Orientation
For Gary Comer Lands' End was always
a life-style business endeavor. Soon after the company's
success seemed assured Comer bought out his partners.
That gave him full freedom to run the business according
to his personal values, providing, of course, that
the business remained profitable. He saw no contradiction.
As he once put it while explaining what most impressed
him about his employees (Comer, "Out Our Way):
|"Our whole story is wrapped up in people
who take pride and honest joy in what they
do, whether its hemming trousers…or cutting
canvas…or making sure merchandise measures up
in quality…Yes, people, and one more thing
…the principles we insist on following
in doing business the Lands' End way –principles
all our people subscribe to, because they're very
much like the principles that have always
governed their lives."
Among the many insightful quotations
provided by Professor Graf's case study is the following
simple summary of Gary Comer's stakeholder thinking.
The statement was made by Corporate Relations Coordinator
Lisa Mullen (Graf, p.451):
|"Although I was not here at the time,
it is common knowledge that Gary Comer
always believed that if you do what's best for
the customer, you won't have to worry about
the company - it'll take care of itself. To Mr.
Comer, customers were both external and internal.
From an external Perspective, his philosophy
was to do whatever it takes to make the customer
happy. However, the same was true for the internal
customer. Since the company was first formed,
Gary Comer insisted on all employees sharing
in its prosperity. If Lands' End was doing well,
he made sure that some of that success
was returned to every employee. that sharing
of success came in a number of forms. The earliest
was establishing an annual bonus, which
is still given to every employee, no matter
what position or capacity. His view was, 'We are
all in this together...'"
Another example of Comer's identification
with his employees was the decision to build an 80,000
square foot Activity
Center for the Dodgeville
employees. The decision was made in 1987 and the facility
was dedicated in February 1989." The structure
includes an Olympic-size swimming pool, a full-size
gymnasium, and 8th mile indoor track, Wisconsin's
largest not-for-profit cafeteria, an aerobics room,
state-of-the-art exercise equipment, handball courts,
a wellness lab, free over-night laundry service for
athletic wear, a locker area, shower and dressing
rooms, and computerized check-in and record keeping
of everyone's use of the facilities."
(p.452). Comer personally donated $ 8 million to pay
for the construction of the facility.
Comer's stakeholder view extended
to the community. Lands' End funded scholarships and
equipment for the local high school. The company funded
numerous community projects including a community
swimming pool and a traffic signal at a busy intersection.
Comer himself donated to charitable causes in what
he considered his original community, the Paul
Revere School area on Chicago's South Side. His gifts included $50 million to the Revere
School community (www-news.uchicago.edu),
major funding for the hospital services at the University
of Chicago including the University of Chicago Comer
Children's Hospital, the Field Museum and a private
school in Chicago run by the De LaSalle Christian
Brothers ("Comer, Gary, Illinois Campaign
for Political Reform"). His three major
hospital gifts to the University of Chicago totaled $83 million (
An Effective and Efficient
"Lands End catalogs are
known for descriptive product narratives that tell
customers everything they could want to know about
a garment and its construction. The company's toll-free
phone lines to both sales and customer-service departments
are open 24 hours a day, 364 days a year. Over 1,000
phone lines handle 50,000 calls each day... Eighty-five
percent of all orders are placed by phone."
"Telephone sales representatives
undergo 80 hours of product, customer-service, and
computer training when initially hired and 24 hours
each year thereafter. So-called 'specialty shoppers'
- specialists trained to assist on a variety of technical
issues- are available 16 hours each day to assist
with sizing questions, gift suggestions, and wardrobe
Professor Graf says that the training
of telephone sales representatives facilitates Lands'
End's policy of moving giving employees a high degree
of freedom and responsibility. He emphasizes this
point with numerous quotations including the following
from human resources vice president Kelly Ritchie
|"What has kept us the employer of choice...
is the respect we have for one another
and the incredible amount of responsibility that
each person is given. Right down to our
frontline sales reps, everybody has the
authority to make whatever decision is necessary
to please the customer ... In every employee
at every level, we try to instill the idea
that they must do whatever is needed to meet the
customer's needs. And what happens if they
aren't sure what to do and they make a
mistake? They're told in advance not to worry
about it - that we'll either follow up
with an explanation of how to handle such
situations in the future or that the mistake (without
reference to the individual involved) will
become one of the focuses at some future
"In-stock order leave
Lands' End's Dodgeville distribution center (a structure
the size of 16 football fields) the day after they
are received. .. Even when trousers are hemmed (free
of charge) to a customer's desired length, shipping
is delayed by only one day." (p.24)
"Lands' End …employs
more than 80 quality-assurance personnel – one of
the largest in-house staffs in the retail industry.
Product managers put back into garments the construction
details of old that are commonly left out today and
operate on a mandate not to reduce the quality of
a garment in order to make it cheaper."
A Learning Organization
Professor Graf's case studies make
it clear that Lands' End was a learning organization.
The learning took place at all levels, and, as a result
the list of examples is encyclopedic. Here are a few
illustrations as reported by Graf:
||The expansion into England
"(The) first real overseas foray was to
the United Kingdom
(1991) ... The first U.K. catalog... was developed by Lands' End copywriters
in Dodgeville. Because the company wanted to portray
itself as truly American, they wrote in American
English rather than the Queen's English... (this
caused linguistic problems) The word thongs, for
instance, which was meant to refer to sandals
, translated in the Queen's English as a rather
skimpy bathing suit ... To manage linguistic and
other problems, in February 1993 Lands' End hired
Henry Heavisides, who had previously been with
a U.K. mail order business... By early 1994 Lands'
End began to feel that it could do better
if it established its own creative staff in the
United Kingdom to write the sort of English with
which British customers would be comfortable."
||The competitive mind set in the Coming Home
operation as explained by Phil Young, managing
"One thing we have learned is that change
is a constant. What we had in place before may
no longer be appropriate. So we basically do an
analysis of the competition. Using focus groups
(both buyers and nonbuyers), we get a much better
idea of what customers really want. "
||Operational changes - Team work
"Prior to March 1994, the creative, merchandising,
quality, inventory and design functions at Lands'
End were all grouped into separate departments...
It soon became apparent that the existing structure
made product development far too time-consuming.
Thus in September 1993, a group of nine employees…were
assembled to devise ways of cutting the time required
to bring products to market... It soon became
clear that cross-functional teams offered the
best solution to Lands' End's product development
Socializing employees to thing the
Comer way about learning and planning was one of Gary
Comer's interesting contributions. Here's a colorful
example from Phil Young of the Coming Home unit (Graf,
|"When I first came to Lands' End eight
years ago I would just go blindly forward
to carry out the plan that was in place. Then,
one day Gary Comer took me aside and explained
how he felt planning implementation should
be approached. He is a big sailor... His explanation
of flexibility in planning went something like
this,' In any sailboat race, you know where
the start and finish are, but when you
are racing, things change. So as the wind changes
or competition makes a move, you have to
change to counter those actions. That is
the flexibility you need to have execute a plan'."
Gary Comer may have started his own
business in order to make his work fit his passion
and lifestyle. And he certainly started in business
without much knowledge of finance, management, or
even the finer points of marketing. But he nevertheless
managed to evolve the business into a professionally
managed industry leader, as Professor Graf’s series
of case studies amply demonstrates.
Campaign for Political Reform, www.ilcampaign.org,
Comer, Gary, "Before
the Beginning and After," published in
1988 in the Lands' End 25th Anniversary
Yearbook and accessed on the Lands' End web site on
January 15, 2007 at www.landsend.com.
Comer, Gary, "Out Our Way,"
www.landsend.com, accessed January 15, 2007.
"Gary Comer, 1927-2006,"Press
release from the University of Chicago News Office, October
Graf, Lee, "Video Case:Lands'
End, Inc. - A Brief History". In Samuel
C. Certo. Modern Management. Seventh Edition.
River, New Jersey: Prentice-
Hall, 2005, pp. 24-26.
Graf, Lee, "Video Case:
Doing Business Abroad: The Lands' End Way." In Samuel Certo, op.cit.,
pp. 106- 109.
Graf, Lee, "Vido Case:Planning
in the Coming Home Division at Lands' End."
In Samuel Certo, op.cit., pp. 222 – 225.
Graf, Lee, "Video Case:
Product Development at Lands' End: From a Functional
to a Team Approach." In Samuel Certo,
op.cit., pp. 321-323.
Graf, Lee, "Video Case:
Lands' End: Controlling a Much Envied Work Climate."
In Samuel Certo, op.cit., pp 450-453.
Graf, Lee, "Video Case: Lands'
End: Getting The Product Out to the Customer.” In
Samuel Certo, op.cit., p536- 539.
Graf, Lee, "Video Case:
Giving High Quality Customer Service: A Focal Point
at Lands' End." In Samuel Certo, op.cit.,
"Jim Fulton on Gary Comer,
Founder of Lands' End,"The Mine ThatData
October 7, 2006.
Kahn, Mickey Alam, "Don't
forget Gary C.Comer," DMNEWS, October
9, 2006 ( www.dmnews.com)
Kogan, Rick, "Lands'
End founder had heart for city," Chicago
Tribune, October 5,2006, pp. 1, 9
Silvers, Amy Rabideau, "Comer
brought Lands' End and much more to Dodgeville,"
Journal Sentinel, www.landsend.com, October 5,2006.