4/30/2008 - It’s a company with a heart, founded on fun. That’s how chief executive Maxine Clark described Build-A-Bear Workshop, the children’s toy company she started in 1997.
She spoke about her 30-year retail career on April 28, sharing with Kellogg School students the leadership framework necessary to run a global firm that began modestly a decade ago but achieved $474 million in sales last year. Today, Build-A-Bear is the 10th-largest toy retailer in the United States, Clark said.
Addressing about 150 students in the Donald P. Jacobs Center, the former May Department Stores executive and one-time president of Payless ShoeSource Inc. recalled an influential insight from an old colleague, May Companies chairman Stanley J. Goodman: “Retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage. When the customer has fun, they spend more money.”
Clark explained how her daughter’s disappointment during a search for Beanie Babies — the 1990s version of the 17th century tulip craze — left the child, then 10, frustrated. But the experience left Clark inspired. After some research, the retail expert declared she would start a company that would produce customized stuffed animals. What began as one store in the St. Louis, Mo., Galleria Mall is today a 370-store global chain where kids construct their own teddy bears, dressing them in an array of clothing and accessories, including branded apparel. (Through an arrangement with Disney, Build-A-Bear offers a line of Hannah Montana bears and a tie-in with “High School Musical.”) The company also recently launched an online site where its young customers can “bring their furry friends to life” and participate in a variety of interactive games.
“We’ve taken bears to places they’ve never been before,” Clark told the audience, which included Professor Lloyd Shefsky’s Successful Entrepreneurship
arranged for the speaker’s visit as part of the Kellogg Distinguished Entrepreneur Speaker Series and referred to her in his introduction as “one of the great merchandisers ... and an entrepreneur.”
Among the insights Clark expressed was the view that entrepreneurship is a very personal quality that can inspire businesspeople to improve the world. Starting a company, she said, should not be focused exclusively on making a lot of money, but should also build community and meet a real need. Clark also advised keeping an open mind and a fresh perspective: She peppered her 30-minute presentation with recommendations like “let a child inspire you” and reminders that “cute sells.”
At the same time, Clark noted the importance of being ready to protect one’s enterprise against fast followers. She said entrepreneurs should strive to be the first, the best and the biggest to really own a market, something Build-A-Bear has tried to do over the last decade, growing from one store to 14 and then quickly jumping to 151 outlets between 2000 and 2003. Since then, the company has gone public and expanded to 370 retail locations.
To do so, Clark said she and her team have sought to make their employees integral to the company. “We hire people who care. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t,” she said, adding that Build-A-Bear’s training program is straightforward. “It’s called ‘yes,’” Clark said, noting the importance of exemplary customer service.
She told students that she often hears would-be entrepreneurs extol the virtues of being their own boss, yet when pressed about whether they have any good ideas or a clear vision about what they want to create, too many don’t have an answer, Clark said. “Why should anybody work for you if you don’t have a good plan?”