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Staples AP Economics: Full Of Beans

Advanced Placement Economics is an intense, hands-on course.

In the hands of a gifted teacher like Staples High School’s Drew Coyne, it can also be a handy one.

Students examine small and large companies, to understand both micro and macroeconomics. Last fall, for example, the COO of Bow Tie Cinemas spoke with them about the evolution, competition and business models of movie chains.

L.L. Bean is far bigger than Bow Tie. Coyne’s class studied supply and demand of boots around the holiday season, then evaluated the cost structure and used marginal thinking to look at feasible options the company could consider.

In most schools, the lesson would end there. But this is Westport — where 1) Bean boots are incredibly popular, and 2) it’s not unusual to have a connection to someone who runs a huge business.

Thanks to a student whose father went to college with L.L. Bean CEO Steve Smith, Coyne arranged a Zoom conference call for his class.

AP Economics students pay rapt attention to L.L. Bean CEO Steve Smith.

Smith began the recent intimate, wide-ranging discussion with background on his route to the top (including AT&T, Hannaford and Walmart International). Then he asked for questions.

Michael Loucas wanted to know “what drives success, particularly for students who are looking at a business path in college and beyond?”

Smith said the #1 key is “intellectual curiosity.” He encouraged the teenagers to explore as many topics as possible, and expand their knowledge of a variety of subjects. He used a “backpack” analogy: bring one through life, to stow away experiences, lessons and skills.

George Englehart asked Smith, “what resource is most important in making a decision?”

The CEO described the need to look at data and current research when facing challenges. He advised against making solo decisions; instead, assemble diverse teams to support open, constructive debate.

“I want a contrarian at my side, a financial-oriented person in another corner, pessimists and optimists all lending their voices” to a conversation, he said.

Yet, he added, once a meeting is over, everyone must have “clarity in the direction of the team.”

Popular footwear at Staples

Ethan Fass — wearing holiday-gift Bean boots — asked about changes in the company’s return policy.

Smith noted its history, including how some customers took advantage of it. Returns without proof of purchase cost Bean nearly $65 million a year.

The conversation even had an international — yet typically Westport — connection.

A couple of weeks ago, Coyne saw former student Kenji Goto at Barnes & Noble. Just before heading to a semester abroad in Switzerland, Kenji — a junior at Emory University — was filling out an internship application for L.L. Bean.

Coyne told him about the upcoming conference call. Kenji joined in from Europe.

And casually mentioned to Smith that he hoped to work for the company this summer.

FUN FACT: This is hardly the first time Staples students have had a chance to talk with an important figure. When physics teacher Nick Georgis ran the Ham Radio Club (the call letters were K1UAT), he arranged sessions with King Hussein of Jordan, and US Senator Barry Goldwater.

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