Build-A-Bear founder discusses business appeal at Neeley breakfast

There might not be anyone having as much fun as Maxine Clark.Clark, the founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop, spoke at a breakfast Thursday morning for the Neeley Tandy Executive Speaker Series.

“The more you love what you do and do what you love, the more successful you will be,” Clark said. And her story confirms it.

She said Build-A-Bear Workshop is a “theme park within a mall,” a store where children ages 3 to 93 create their own custom bears and other plush animals.

Customers choose unstuffed animals and with the help of the Master Bear Builder, white fluff is blown into the toys to fill them to their desire.

Each child is given a heart, and told to “Rub it, kiss it, and make a wish” before it is inserted and the last seam is stitched.

“No two animals are ever alike, no two wishes are ever the same. That’s the same way we look at our guests, each one is unique, each one is special and each one is valued,” Clark said. “At Build-A-Bear, our guests are the heart of our business. They inspire us, they challenge us, and they make us smile.”

After their companion is put together, the customer names their animals and provides valuable customer data for Build-A-Bear including name, address, age and gender.

“While our target is the 10-year-old girl, it may surprise you to know that almost 30 percent of our guests are boys, and 20 percent are over 14 years of age,” Clark said.

Build-A-Bear operates 271 retail stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and has sold more than 50 million bears. Primarily located in shopping malls, Build-A-Bear provides an experience of interactive retail.

Total revenues for 2006 were $437 million, and their net income was $29 million.

“(The profits are) proving fun does generate profit,” Clark said. “Of course, we are a business so we focus on the bottom line of building a successful brand.”

Prior to founding Build-A-Bear in St. Louis in 1997, Clark was the president of Payless ShoeSource.

“I left corporate America on a mission to bring back the fun to retailing, and to give back to the industry that had been so good me,” she said. “I was looking to recreate the excitement and the magic that I felt as a child when I went shopping. I wanted to take the concept of children’s retailing a step beyond where it was and turn it into experience retailing.

Clark said the idea for Build-A-Bear surfaced while she was shopping for Beanie Babies with her friend’s daughter, a 10-year-old girl named Katie.

“We couldn’t find what we were looking for, and she looked at one of the ones that was left on the shelf and said, ‘These are so easy, we could make these,'” Clark said.

Katie meant it in the literal sense, but Clark said she heard something much bigger.

“We sat down in my office and started thinking what the bears would look like and what they would be named,” Clark said. “About a week later, Katie called me on the phone and said, ‘We can’t name the bears. I wouldn’t want anybody to name my bear George for me.'”

We decided to make the process of naming your bear part of the experience at Build-A-Bear Workshop,” Clark said.

By themselves, the stuffed animals cost $10 to $25. But, “Bear Boutiques,” throughout each store, which offer clothing and other bear accessories including t-shirts, jerseys, princess dresses and golf bags, can cost anywhere from $2 to $15.

“We sell the brand experience,” Clark said. “That means we sell not only the product but the fun of making your own stuffed animal. Each experience our guests have is unique, so they come back to our store again and again, and they share their experience with their friends.”

Clark credits children for making her company a success.

“Everyday I listen to what young children have to say,” she said. “Kids are worth listening to and can bring you tremendous ideas and thinking outside the box in the most purest sense.”

Joshua Prather, 10, is a big fan of Build-A-Bear. He brought his reindeer named Rudolph to breakfast, and he has a dog named Penelope.

“Every time my grandparents take me, we get a lot of stuff for them,” he said. “My favorite part is stuffing the heart in.”

And what was Prather’s favorite part of Clark’s lecture?

“Sometimes kids inspire parents.” He left with a new addition to his Build-A-Bear family, a bear clad in TCU-wear appropriately named “Steve”.

Joshua’s father, Eric Prather, in Neeley External Relations, said he is sure his son will return to Build-A-Bear.

“He just loves animals, real and stuffed,” Eric Prather said. “He likes to take care of them and protect them.”

This was Clark’s first visit to TCU, and she said she was impressed with what she saw.

“Most of the people are so incredibly welcoming, and I’m so impressed with the entrepreneurial program,” Clark said. “I was 48 years old when I started my business, and some of these kids were 12 when they started their business, and I am just wowed by that. I’m so glad its being nurtured in a place like TCU.”

Clark had been attached to her own bear, “Teddy,” when she lost him as a young child. Her loss helped her get in touch with her inner child and the connection she had to her bear.

“If we left things to kids and stuffed animals, there would be no question there would be a world at peace,” Clark said. “Because kids and stuffed animals all know that we are made of the same kind of stuffing.