Gary Comer

Lands' End

GARY COMER

Lands' End

Introduction

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.

The Founder's Background

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, p.9):

"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 accomplished copywriter.

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 and after"):

"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 consist of."

"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.

Early 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 after").

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):

"Sell only things we believe in"
"Ship every order the day it arrives."
"Unconditionally guarantee everything."

The store was opened in August of 1963 . The first catalog was produced the second year with the name "Lands' End Yachtsman's Equipment Guide."

Expansion 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):

1. 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."
2. 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'."
3. 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, PERIOD."
4. 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."
5. 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."
6. 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."
7. 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."
8. 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 and bath.)

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 United Kingdom 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. 26).

In 1994 Lands' End became the leading specialty catalog retailer in the United States. The legendary L.L. Bean fell to second place.

Characteristics 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 ( www.-ews.uchicago.edu/releases/06/061005.comer.shtml.)

An Effective and Efficient Organization

"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." (p.24).

"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 coordination."(p. 24)

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 (p 451):

"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 training session."

"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." (p. 24)

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:

1. 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." (pp. 106-107)
2. The competitive mind set in the Coming Home operation as explained by Phil Young, managing director (p.223):

"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. "
3. 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 problems." (p.321).

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, p. 223)

"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'."

Conclusion

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.

References

"Comer, Gary,"Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, www.ilcampaign.org, August, 2005.

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 5, 2006.

Graf, Lee, "Video Case:Lands' End, Inc. - A Brief History". In Samuel C. Certo. Modern Management. Seventh Edition. Upper Saddle 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., p.588

"Jim Fulton on Gary Comer, Founder of Lands' End,"The Mine ThatData Blog, www.minethatdata.blogspot.com. 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," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, www.landsend.com, October 5,2006.