Interview with Maxine Clark, founder and chief executive bear Build-A-Bear Workshop®.
Describe your growth “ride” since your inception in 1997, and what factors you most actively managed to achieve it?
The concept for Build-A-Bear Workshop® was born from the desire to reinvent retailing for the 21st century. The idea was the result of years of retail experience and a desire to bring the fun back to shopping- the way I remembered it when I was a child. The ‘light bulb’ went off for me when I was shopping with my friend Katie, who at the time was 10-years-old. It was during the height of the Beanie Baby craze and Katie was frustrated at not being able to find the one she wanted. Katie suggested making them. She meant to start a craft project, but I heard something else.
I envisioned a unique concept, highly scalable to 300-400 stores in the US and as many worldwide, which would provide the opportunity for kids to get truly involved and participate. Early in my career, Stanley Goodman, then CEO of the May Department Stores said, “Retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage and when the customer has fun they spend more money.” It was the goal to make the stores a fun place to go not only for kids but for their friends and family members.
We didn’t invent teddy bears (nor did Howard Schultz invent coffee or Ray Kroc hamburgers). What we did is expand on the original idea and bring it to mall- based retailing.
Today there are 270+ stores in the US with 21 in Canada, 51 in the UK and 15 franchises around the world.
- The stores have been incredibly branded, from the very first store. What prompted your strong commitment to branding?
As a child I shopped with my mom and had an eye for detail. The same principles apply when engaging customers today as they did then. It is all about the customer and any one who doesn’t figure that out doesn’t do very well.
Today there are many more choices. Disneyland was one of my favorite places—I wanted to put a Disneyland-like store in the mall. It had to be fun and affordable. Very few stores seek to put the effort in the details and the customer engagement experience because they do not see the value in that business model. Apple does it, but many more retail chains do not.
We have developed a brand blueprint that has served as a guide for every decision we have made and every strategy we have applied. It covers every detail including visual elements such as in-store signs, interior designs, displays, and graphics, as well as the company’s unique language-that is, our product names, trademarked in-store station names, and our Bearisms. Even our titles are unique and fun. I’m known as “Chief Executive Bear”.
Over time, we have evolved our model to include on line branding with the introduction of buildabearville.com.
- What are the components of branding that you believe matter most?
Branding is often misunderstood and defined in a very limited way to mean the logo or name. Branding transforms the company into a living, breathing thing. Your brand is who you say you are and how you follow through. It is the soul of the business and flows through every aspect of a company—the products, employees, partnerships, culture, policies and business strategies.
The heart of the Build-A-Bear Workshop brand is our commitment to our core values. We are dedicated to providing a unique brand experience—one that combines fun with imagination and self-expression and always strengthens our connection with our Guests. This emotional connection keeps our concept fresh and relevant.
- One of the things Build-A-Bear Workshop stores are known for is the entire experience the customer receives. It forms the cornerstone of their brand perception. Describe why the experience is so important, and what experience you strive to deliver?
I want every single person who walks by our store to smile and every customer who walks into our store to feel like it was the best day in their life – whether they are 3 or 103– and that is why we offer Guests a consistent experience time and time again. The wide open storefront is engaging and even if you don’t come in we hope you come back. The experience starts from the first point of contact whether that is answering the phone or an employee greeting a customer. We hire people who really care and love what they do because we sell smiles. We share an emotional bond with our Guests.
Our young Guests leave our store walking a little taller and prouder, with a sense of accomplishment and responsibility for their new best friend. They have made more than a bear; they have made a lasting memory . . . and we have made a relationship for life. This strong emotional connection is what makes our concept unique. It’s what Build-A-Bear Workshop is all about.
- Has the experience changed since its inception? And if so, how?
The core of the Build-A-Bear Workshop experience remains the same. However, we have incorporated some of the great ideas shared with us by our Guests and associates through the years. One example of this is the heart ceremony which was created by one of our associates. This is now a key part of the bear-making process.
We are constantly experimenting with new themes and with events at the store level. This year we will have a zoo event in stores; another theme is ice cream. Our hope is to attract our new customers by the age of 6 and keep them for a lifetime.
- How do you ensure the delivery of a consistent concept; many retailers hire hourly wage support and grapple with inconsistent customer service?
Our hiring process seeks to identify individuals who exhibit our core values. We look for people who value teamwork, show leadership, are enthusiastic, and exude warmth. Employees must understand these values, believe in them and mirror them. In short, we look for people who are passionate about what we do.
At Build-A-Bear Workshop® we have a unique and detailed interview process to assist us in selecting the best of the best. Our Bear Builder associates truly are our experience, and therefore, it is critical to our success that every individual fits well into our unique culture.
- How important is your internal culture in delivering the brand consistently?
Very much so. Our internal culture is defined by the unchanging traits of the Build-A-Bear Workshop brand and business model – imagination, creativity, empowerment, self expression, giving and fun. I love my job; to me it is not work. We create an environment that is open and inclusive.
Our Guest experience, the brand connection that occurs when our Guests and our associates interact in our stores, remains the heart of our concept. We have an employee manual with one big word in it …YES.
Retail is a demanding industry and we observed that last year was a tough year for many reasons, not all of which were driven by the economy. A lot of businesses lost their “mojo” and blamed the economy as a reason not to push. Customers were in the malls because they still wanted to smile and shop. This year we are celebrating small successes, not caught up in doom and gloom. We are “playing with a purpose” – in other words, to use fun to motivate toward breakthrough results.
- Describe your internal culture and how you educate and integrate new people.
I believe that the more fun people have, the harder they will work. We have a distinctive culture that we believe encourages contribution and collaboration. We take great pride in our culture and feel it is critical in encouraging communication, creativity and strong store performance. We are committed to training and recognizing individual accomplishment as well as team success. Despite our rapid growth, we work hard to maintain a small-company feel that encourages collaboration, creative thinking and interaction at all levels.
We seek to “wow” our new employees from the very start. Once a position is accepted, the new hire’s offer letter is personally delivered to their home by a “Messenger Bear” in a Cub Condo® carrying case.
Prior to their first day, our store managers receive training materials, benefit information, and a custom-designed messenger bag with the Build-A-Bear Workshop® logo. The manager’s district supervisor, or Bearitory Leader, meets the individual on their first day at the store to complete an initial orientation. This includes a team “meet and greet,” payroll and benefits enrollment and a review of the training calendar.
The individual is introduced to their immediate team right away and ultimately, they are welcomed by our entire World Bearquarters family at a “Shake and Howdy” event. At Shake and Howdy, all of our World Bearquarters associates gather and introduce themselves by giving their name, department, length of time with the company, and an answer to a unique question of the day.
Each individual also spends a day working in a store with Guests and training as a Bear Builder® associate. This helps every new team member better understand the heart of our business and consider the store teams’ needs in any decisions going forward.
- What has your leadership team done differently in the last 18 months?
Two-thousand nine was a challenging year, yet we made steady progress towards our goals. The year began with considerable uncertainty regarding the length and severity of the recession. Yet, we knew that with innovative product and store value messages, we could entice families to visit our stores. The goal for 2010 is to raise the high bar on energy and recognize that we are more in control than we think we are. We talk about what we can do more often and we watch expenses.
- The success of Build-A-Bear Workshop has spawned ideas/launch of other retail concepts. Where are those in development?
We would love to have Build-A-Bear Workshop stores wherever families go to have fun.
- Build-A-Bear Workshop and Major League Baseball® have teamed up to provide fans across the country with opportunities to support their favorite teams in unique ways. Fans can make their own club mascots at AT&T Park™ in San Francisco, Busch Stadium™ in St. Louis, Citizens Bank Park™ in Philadelphia and Nationals Park™ in Washington D.C.
- In March 2006, Build-A-Bear Workshop opened its first store located inside a zoo at the Saint Louis Zoo. Build-A-Bear Workshop At The Zoo Where Wild And Wonderful Friends Are Made® offers over 10 animals, some of which are exclusive to the zoo, for kids of all ages to enjoy.
- In March 2007, Build-A-Bear Workshop and Build-A-Dino debuted the first store ever inside a science center. The combination store at the Saint Louis Science Center offers multiple furry friends and dinosaurs, plus a variety of outfits, several available exclusively at this location
We are continuing to evaluate other new concepts and some haven’t made the cut while others will not be mall based. What works for us is stuffed animals with broad age and gender appeal.
- At Build-A-Bear Workshop, how is leadership defined and rewarded?
At Build-A-Bear Workshop leadership is setting a clear vision that people understand and see how they fit in. The result is collaboration. Leaders listen to what their employees have to say and create a climate of reciprocal respect while teaching responsibility, accountability and inspiration.
I am a big basketball fan and have been from the time I was young. I observed how coaches are always on the floor, giving signals and guidance. A leader coaches from the sidelines. You want to win, you know your team strengths, so you coach and guide them to the finish line. Some times that winning shot is a field goal, sometimes a three-pointer but you find a way to win. Coaches are constantly blending coaching with motivation and reward. You can’t make the free throw for them so it is your job to make sure your team can (experience, training) and will (performance) make it.
Finally, leaders today have to give back. It is important to have a higher purpose than just finding ways to sell stuff. It is important to give back to the company and the community.
Maxine Clark is one of the true innovators in the retail industry. During her 30+-year career, her ability to spot emerging retail and merchandising trends and her insight into the desires of the American consumer have generated growth for retail leaders, including department store, discount and specialty stores. In 1997, she founded Build-A-Bear Workshop®, a teddy-bear themed retail-entertainment experience. Today there are more than 400 Build-A-Bear Workshop stores worldwide, including company-owned stores in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland and France, and franchise stores in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa. Build-A-Bear Workshop extended its in-store interactive experience online in 2007 with the launch of its virtual world at buildabearville.com
In 2008, Maxine Clark was named one of The 25 Most Influential People in Retailing by Chain Store Age; in 2006, she was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame and received the 2006 Luminary Award for Entrepreneurial Achievement from the Committee of 200. She was named a Customer-Centered Leader in the 2005 Customer First Awards by Fast Company. Maxine was named one of the Wonder Women of Toys by Playthings magazine and Women in Toys, and was also one of the National Finalists in Retail for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2004. Build-A-Bear Workshop was named to the 2010 and 2009 FORTUNE Best Companies to Work For® list. Buildabearville.com received a 2009 ‘Best of the Web’ award from WiredSafety, was honored with the socially safe seal, and in 2008 received the Excellent Product iParenting Media Award. In 2005, the National Association of Small Business Investment Companies made Build-A-Bear Workshop Portfolio Company of the Year; it was named one of the International Council of Shopping Centers “Hottest Retailers of 2004” and the Retail Innovator of the Year for 2001 by The National Retail Federation.
Maxine is a member of the Board of Directors of The J.C. Penney Company, Inc., and serves on the Board of Trustees of Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the Teach For America National Board, the National Board of Donorschoose.org and the KETC Channel 9 – PBS Board of Directors. She is also a member of the Committee of 200. Maxine is a graduate of the University of Georgia, and holds an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from St. Louis University. In 2006, she published her first book The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart.