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Terry Sutton got her first real taste of life at L. L. Bean in the mid-1990s, when she was working there as a process improvement manager. Management convened a company meeting and made a point of recognizing a customer service rep named Peg. As Sutton tells it, Peg had received a call from a customer who wanted to buy a monogrammed Christmas stocking for a recently adopted baby–a stocking that would match the rest of the family’s. It turned out the item had been discontinued. Peg checked the returns center, the employee store, and the liquidations channel but came up empty-handed. She apologized to the customer and hung up.

“But what’s incredible,” says Sutton, “is that [Peg] kept thinking about it, and it really bothered her. So she found some of the material and made one herself and sent it. Now they exchange Christmas cards.”

The story left a strong impression on Sutton, who today is vice president of customer satisfaction at L. L. Bean. Sutton is not on the receiving end of customer calls, but she does work to protect the sort of culture that makes stories like Peg’s possible.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in hierarchy,” she says. “I value people who go above and beyond and can make things happen. I try to grab those people and bring them along.” But identifying talent is only half the equation. What sort of environment best nurtures dedicated, empathetic employees? And how does one balance employee engagement with customer service and the bottom line?

Sutton says she thrives on these problems. Her earlier jobs as a senior engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation and a director of technology and planning at L. L. Bean more directly used her training in mechanical engineering, but today she applies her skills to process improvement and management. “I love understanding how things work,” she says. “I’ve often thought that if I hadn’t gone into engineering, I would have been an anthropologist. I’m fascinated by people and how they work.”

To understand her employees, Sutton spends a lot of time in conversation with them, attempting to balance their needs with the broader needs of the company. And to understand her customers, she tries the sports and sporting equipment that they shop for. At a company event not too long ago, Sutton could be spotted baiting a fly-fishing rod and leveling archery bows at three-dimensional targets.

Sutton and her husband, Michael, live in Maine. They have three kids: Erin, a sophomore at Tufts; Josh, a freshman at Saint Anselm College; and Sofia, who is in middle school.

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