Clark, Maxine

MaxineClark.jpgFounder, Chief Executive Bear, and Chairman of Build-A-Bear Workshop®, Where Best Friends Are Made®

Maxine Clark has been Chief Executive Bear of Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc., since the company’s inception in 1997 and has served as chairman of the board of directors since April 2000. During her 30-year career in retail, she was the President of Payless ShoeSource, Inc., for more than three years, and she spent over 19 years in various divisions of The May Department Stores in areas including merchandise development, merchandise planning, merchandise research, marketing, and product development.

By the end of 2006 there will be nearly 300 Build-A-Bear Workshop stores worldwide. Maxine Clark was recently named a Customer-Centered Leader in the 2005 Customer First Awards by Fast Company. She was one of the Wonder Women of Toys named by Playthings magazine and Women in Toys, and she was one of the National Finalists in Retail for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004. She is also Chair of Teach for America St. Louis and a member of the Committee of 200, a leading organization for women entrepreneurs around the world. In May 2006 her first book, The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart, was published by Wiley.

The Bear Necessities of Business book cover asks …

Maxine, you’ve written a book about Build-A-Bear Workshop that chronicles your story from writing a business plan all the way to how you’ve made word-of-mouth marketing work for your company. What was your goal with this book?

MC: Ever since starting Build-A-Bear Workshop, I have had so many people ask me, “You made a business out of making your own stuffed animals. Can you help me? I have this idea or that idea.” A lot of children write to me about their entrepreneurial projects for school, as well. I always try to help as much as I can, but you know, some things you just can’t convey in a phone conversation, if you can impart them to people at all.

I thought the book would be a great way for me to put it all in one place. It was a very cathartic process for me. As our company grows and matures and becomes less of a toddler and more of a teenager in its years of age, it helps to remember the things that made us a successful company. So it had a lot of purposes, but the original one was to help other people see that it’s not so complicated. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to sell television parts or stuffed animals, you have to determine what you want to be, think of yourself as a brand, and create a wow factor for the customer.

Your last job was CEO of Payless ShoeSource?

MC: I was the president of Payless ShoeSource. I was in the merchandising and retail business for 20 years working for the May Company. The May Company actually owned Payless until the time I left. After I left, they spun it off as a public company.

How did you go from that to bears?

MC: That’s a great story. I love the retail business. At Payless, I had reached the point where I was feeling like we weren’t doing enough for the customer. The fun of the business had gone out of it. When I started in retailing, I had the good fortune to meet the chairman of the May Companies, Stanley Goodman. He said, “Retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage. When customers have fun, they spend more money.”

I always believed that and I felt the only way I could really get the fun back into retailing was to go out and do something myself. I wanted to do something creative, so I looked at a lot of concepts for children because children require you to be creative.

While I was out shopping for Beanie Babies with my best friend, Katie, who was ten at the time, she said, “These are so easy, we could make these.” The light went on for me. She meant go home and do a craft project, but I had been to factories that make stuffed animals as part of my business; I knew how easy it was. I said, “There’s an opportunity.” We reinvented the concept of making your own stuffed animals from sewing machines to something that could be done by just about anybody in a mall environment.

I visited one of your stores recently and was very impressed. I’m not a teddy bear kind of guy. [Laughter] First of all, the associates were fabulous. One of them had to put together a new display bear. She walked me through the whole process. In fact, I even had to twirl around and jump up and down with the heart for this bear.

MC: Now you are a bear. I was a merchandise manager during the Cabbage Patch Kids phenomenon. We didn’t invent all the things we do; we merchandise them for mall-based retailing. I love to go to malls. People have said malls are dead and the internet will be the only place that you will be able to go or want to buy anything, but I knew that wasn’t true. I know the customer is always going to want to shop and they want to have multiple alternatives. We started a business in 1997 that was absolutely the antithesis of an internet business; it was a high-touch versus a high-tech business.

Yet you can order a complete bear with all the various fashion accessories via the Web.

MC: Yes.

You note in the book that the heart ceremony was something one of your employees came up with. How did that become part of the bear-creation process?

MC: A friend of mine had the idea of using a heart in our bears. When we opened our first store, we had hearts but we didn’t go through a procedure while putting the heart in. A young teacher worked part time for us. One day, I walked into our store and saw him go through this whole ceremony. People were jumping up and down, rubbing the heart on their elbows, and rubbing it on their foreheads so the bear would be smart. I said, “Jeff, what are you doing?” He said, “Well, I decided to make it into a ceremony so everybody would have a special experience with the heart.” It was brilliant. He was so successful at it that we ran out of hearts because people wanted to put two or three hearts into their bears. That became part of our culture because everybody wanted to do it the way Jeff did it.

Well, it is great fun. You mention in a few places that Disney and Starbucks are role models for your business. What have you learned from each of them and applied to Build-A-Bear Workshop?

MC: I’ve always been a student of business and felt there was so much to learn from other companies. The Disney experience is about magic. When you walk into a Disney park, you forget every single problem you have, and adults become kids. I felt that with Build-A-Bear Workshop, we could do that on a more localized basis. When you come into a Build-A-Bear Workshop store, it’s about having a great time, whether you buy something or not. It’s sort of a theme park in a mall. Our store is bright and cheery. You’re transported for the time that you’re in our store to a teddy bear world that’s magical and fun, to bring you back to your childhood.

Starbucks is one of my favorite places; they reinvented the coffee house. I grew up in the ’60s and that’s when coffee houses were popular, but certainly different. Starbucks has created a sense of community, but also taken a commodity like coffee and turned it into a desired icon, a desired brand, a desired product.

That’s what I’ve learned from Starbucks. Who says there are any commodities out there? If you can take coffee, that you used to buy for 35 cents a cup, and sell it for $4, or a teddy bear, that you used to buy off the shelf, and now you can make it yourself, give it personality traits, dress it as a cheerleader or as a Red Sox player, who’s to say what branding really is? Neither Starbucks nor Build-A-Bear Workshop invented the products that we sell, but we invented how to sell them better.

I interviewed John Moore, a former marketer for Starbucks, and he said the strategy wasn’t to consciously think about building the brand; it was really based on appreciating a good cup of coffee. You’ve just taken that idea and applied it to bears.

MC: People come into your store, your theme park, or your coffee house with their own set of circumstances. It’s your job to make a transformation happen for that person.

Many people think they have to bring a child with them to Build-A-Bear Workshop. But it isn’t about that. It’s about having a very personal moment there. Lots of times people just walk in to say hello to us, to get a pick-me-up.

I’m sure that’s true. The young ladies working there were very energetic and vibrant. I may take my wife back there because she thought it sounded like so much fun. [Laughter] Now she wants to go and make a bear.

MC: It is really fun. Sometimes you make a bear for yourself, sometimes for a baby, sometimes for somebody who’s in the hospital. There are a million opportunities. That’s how you feel when you go into Starbucks. I used to go there to get a cup of coffee, now I get lemonade. It’s become a meeting place, a place you feel comfortable. The best retailers, the best marketers, know how to do that with their brand—be it Disney, Starbucks, Build-A-Bear Workshop, or Four Seasons.

Back in the early ’70s, the May Company sent me to an event at which Tom Peters was speaking. He’d just written the book In Search of Excellence. I thought it was a novel approach, a very female way of looking at business: looking at what people do right, copying what they do right, and not looking at ways you can tear them down because of things they do wrong. I’ve probably read my copy 50 or 60 times. Some of the “eight basics” are just so obvious.

Do you see a future where you might sell food or birthday cakes as part of the experience?

MC: We have the Eat with Your Bear Hands Café in our New York store. We also have a licensed part of our business dealing with food. We’ve licensed party decorations to a few companies. One makes party designs for cakes that sell in grocery stores, another sells party plates and cups, that kind of thing.

In the book, you mentioned that you lost your own teddy bear around the age of 10, but you never go into any details. Do you have any idea where you lost it?

MC: I didn’t really lose it. I was out to dinner at a restaurant with my father and our next door neighbors. My dad thought I was too old for my teddy bear. He thought if he took my teddy bear away, I would stop sucking my thumb and I wouldn’t need braces. So when we were in the restaurant for dinner, he went out to the car and took the bear. It didn’t stop me from sucking my thumb, I probably sucked it more because I was so depressed about losing my teddy bear. When I was 40 years old, my dad owned up to it.

He threw away your teddy bear? That sounds traumatic.

MC: I don’t know if he threw it away or put it away. But I’ve recovered from it.

And here you are leading a teddy bear empire, lo, these many years later.

MC: Yes. I loved my teddy bear; he was my first best friend. He’s a part of me today and I believe I have found him some 42 million times over, because that’s how many bears we’ve sold since we started Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Wow, 42 million?

MC: Yes.

How many is that per year?

MC: It varies. Since we had only one store in the first year, and now we have over 200, it grows exponentially each year.

You have an advisory board of kids. Why did you choose to do that and how do you manage it?

MC: Our Cub Advisors. I don’t have children of my own, and I wanted to go into a children’s business. It began with Katie, who was my best friend and she was only 10 years old when I started the business. Her brother Jack was 7. I immersed myself with them: I’d take them to school, we’d go shopping, and we’d talk a lot about business.

I realized I’m not going to be able to know everything that a kid knows. When I was in high school, we had these teen boards for the fashion business. If you were on the Burdines teen board, you advised them on fashion and got to work in the store. I always thought that was such a cool thing and that it would be fun to do for Build-A-Bear.

In the beginning about 10 other kids, varying in ages from 5 to 16, helped advise me on products we should carry, names we should call the animals, and operating procedures in our stores. We used to get together fairly often because there were just ten and they were all here locally. Then we just had so many business issues we needed to share with them, we added 5 more kids, they couldn’t all get together, and we couldn’t wait for four meetings a year. So we would call them in when we needed them. And then we started getting so many kids from around the country who wanted to participate, that we developed an internet version where we survey the kids that are in our group. It really helps us a lot.

Since day one, we have used the input of our guests to help us make store decisions, where to open up new stores, what new products to carry, or when to discontinue something. It’s a wonderful thing. It takes the responsibility off our shoulders and helps our customers have more of a say in the business. What a privilege to have your customers engage with you and want to give you advice about your business. We consider that one of the greatest privileges that business success has brought us.

So many children write to me and give me suggestions. I always ask them to share our correspondence with their parents. They have my email address because I tell the store people to give it out. I think it’s one of the most wonderful things, I love it, the communication.

So you get a truckload of emails every day?

MC: Oh, I sure do. But you know what? I don’t know if we could have done this business the same way in any other time. Having email, so that kids can feel empowered and send you their opinion, then receive a response letting them know they’re appreciated, works so much to our favor. I’ve received a few actual letters and responded in kind; it was a little reminiscent of the old days. I can respond so much faster by email.

Think of all those companies that had to start before the internet age.

MC: Right, we’re really fortunate. In every job I’ve had, I’ve been responsive to customers. I don’t want to leave that to my assistant. That’s the real link to your customers. Even bad news brings good news because you can learn from it.

Did you learn that in your early retail training or is it something in your nature?

MC: It’s in my nature. Everybody wants to be acknowledged and appreciated. Everybody wants to go to a place like the Cheers bar where everybody knows your name. You want to be part of a community or club. You want to be acknowledged and appreciated for your business, if you’re spending money on a company’s product or staying at their hotel. It’s good customer service, but it’s also the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have others do unto you. It’s not that hard and it’s always served me well.

As a child, the adults that I remembered and appreciated were those that noticed me and appreciated me. We don’t ever know what kind of an impact we’re going to have on someone. I’ve tried to make a point in my adult life of finding the teachers that were important to me and telling them thank you. We all need to know that we are appreciated, that we made a difference. It gives us fuel to continue.

Speaking of teachers, Mrs. Grace was your first grade teacher and clearly the most enlightened person on the planet at that time. Could you explain her red pencil policy?

MC: She was a wonderful teacher. Everybody can remember their first grade teacher. Mrs. Grace always had a way of making you special. When you made the best mistake of the week in her class, she gave you her red pencil. That was a coveted prize because when you’re a first grader, you have those thicker pencils, and she had this nice, thin, really sharp red pencil.

An adult pencil.

MC: You didn’t want to use it because you didn’t want to break the point. You put it in the little crayon box that you had decorated and every time you opened it, you thought, “I got an award, I got a prize.” When you’re six or seven years old, you’re not thinking, “I’m going to raise my hand and even though I know the answer, I’m going to give the wrong answer just to get the prize,” because being right at that age is just as important as walking away with a pencil. So you won both ways. You won if you got the right answer because you heard, “Great answer, Maxine.” Or you won if you didn’t, “That’s a good try, thanks for trying.”

I’ve never heard anything like that. In business today, we discuss encouraging people to make mistakes, although most of the time people don’t really mean it. Yet you had a teacher who really meant it. I’ve never heard of any other teacher like that. I had great teachers, but none of them were encouraging us to make mistakes.

MC: I had a third grade teacher who took the opposite approach. She wrote my mother a note on the back of my report card, “Maxine asks too many questions.”

That’s sad. [Laughter]

MC: It’s the first time my mother complained to the school. It made her so mad, that anybody would discourage an eight- or nine-year-old from asking things. I was a really nosy kid. I always wanted to understand why people did this, or why people did that. That’s what I love about kids writing to us, their questions. I had a little boy who wrote to me from Boca Raton. He wants us to have a store in the local mall. We want to be there, but they don’t have a space for us. I had to explain that to him because he feels it’s personal.

Sounds like a future employee.

MC: Yes, I think he will be.

I love that one of your pieces of advice is to check your email spam folder regularly. I know this is going to sound horribly sexist, but I didn’t expect a female CEO of a teddy bear company to be as granular about technology advice as you are at the end of the book.

MC: Unfortunately, I’ve gotten behind with my spam folder review. I probably have around 5,000 emails in there right now. I have to go through them because some of them are customers who write to me and I don’t want them to get deleted. It’s important to try to keep up with things. I organize everything so I can find an email somebody sent me in 2001 if I have to. Somebody will say to me, “I wrote you in 2001,” and I can go right to the file and find it.

That’s impressive.

MC: Before, I would’ve had to ask my secretary to find a file folder. It’s so important to have the latest technology. People think they can’t afford it, but they can’t afford not to.

Yes, getting technologically savvy is not that difficult and it can save you a lot of trouble.

MC: Today you can look up just about anything on the internet, anything you want to have, or think you need for your business. You can see what you’re missing. You can learn from the best of the best. You could never have done that before. It used to be a major effort; you had to go to the library and look it up. But now I sit up at night for hours on the internet. I’m an information hound; I love to learn. It’s a tremendous tool for your business.

Right. How popular is the pirate teddy?

MC: Very popular due to the influence of Pirates of the Caribbean. We always try to be topical. When Harry Potter was popular, we had wizard costumes. We also sell tons of princess, football, and baseball costumes. Baseball especially right now, because of the World Series. All the items tied to those teams are selling like crazy.

Except for our poor Red Sox.

MC: But they still sell well. The fans still love them. They just had a bad year.

It’s true. [Laughter] You’re an eternal optimist, Maxine. It’s great, and I think it shows up in everything you do.

MC: I do believe in the power of possibility. If you want to do something badly enough, you can find a way in today’s world. You can change your life by finding the right company to work for, the right company to do business with. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a time when there was so much going on in the world. How could I not be an optimist? There’s been so much wonderful change and so many possibilities unfolding right before my eyes in the last 57 years.

With that, I want to say thank you very much for your time.

MC: It’s my pleasure.

Email: maxineclark (at) –

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