October 07, 2006

Jim Fulton on Gary Comer, Founder of Lands' End

Jim Fulton offers us this contribution, about his relationship with Gary Comer, founder of Lands' End. Gary passed away last week, at the age of 78.


I joined Lands' End in 1986, as a summer intern, between first and second year at business school. I had really wanted an internship at an ad agency in Chicago, but the day I got the bullet in the mail, I also received a Lands' End catalog. I had been a customer for four years and really admired everything about the company, so I thought "What the hell, I'll send a resume to Gary Comer."

The next week when I called to follow up on the letter, I was put through to Gary's assistant Mary (who was one of the sweetest people I had ever met), and introduced myself. She moved the phone away from her face and yelled 'Hey Gary, it's that kid from Northwestern." I heard a "click," and then heard "Hi Jim, this is Gary." My jaw dropped to the floor, and I started three weeks later.

I had the privilege (and I use that term in its highest meaning) to work with Gary a number of times during my years at LE, and I don't want to bore the readers with them, but in thinking back on the kind of guy Gary was -- and the culture he created -- I do want to share one little anecdote.

From the time I was an intern, I always kept a coffee mug full of chocolate (Hershey's kisses or Ghirardelli chocolate squares) on my desk, because I thought it was a nice gesture. I didn't know it at the time (but Gary's secretary told me later) but Gary apparently had this huge chocolate "thing," and he knew that I kept a stash on my desk. So I'd be sitting there, working on whatever little project newly-minted MBAs work on, my office walls filled with three dimensional graphs of customer behavior, and Gary would walk in and he'd make small talk and ask me what I was working on and he'd stand there and eat chocolate.

I was initially really flattered, thinking "wow, this guy must really be interested in my work." I think he was, but he was also satisfying his chocolate craving. After the company went public, he'd still come in and chat and I'd think "Come on Gary, you don't need to make all the small talk, you can just grab and go," but he never did -- he was always the kindest, most good-humored person in the office.

The other thing that always amazed me about Gary was his ability to remember names -- my name, my wife's name, my daughter's name.

Gary wasn't infallible of course, and there were a number of decisions that I disagreed with but there was no argument about the intensity of the culture he created and the admiration he evoked from everyone who worked with him. Rest in peace, Gary, and thanks for picking up the phone twenty years ago.

Jim Fulton