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10 Lessons from Maxine Clark, Founder of the Build-A-Bear Workshop Retail Chain (No. 94 on the Fortune’s 2009 Top 100 U.S. Places to Work) [PART 1 in 3-PART SERIES]

December 9, 2009

10 Lessons from Maxine Clark, Founder of the Build-A-Bear Workshop Retail Chain (No. 94 on the Fortune’s 2009 Top 100 U.S. Places to Work) [PART 1 in 3-PART SERIES]

I listened to The Florida Retail Federation’s webinar interview with Maxine Clark, Founder, Chairman and “Chief Executive Bear” of the Build-A Bear Workshop retail chain. [I recommend any of their free webinars; next one is in January].  At No. 94, Build-A-Bear Workshop made Fortune’s list of Top 100 U.S. Places to Work.  See

I decided to write a blog entry on the lessons a business owner learn from Maxine and her successful retail enterprise.  I am breaking up my article into three blog posts.

What is the Build-A-Bear Workshop (“BAB”)?  Founded in 1997, the BAB is a global retailer that sells customizable teddy bears and other stuffed animals.  It is the largest create-your-own animal retailer.  Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, the company’s motto is “Where Best Friends Are Made”.  The chain has over 400 stores in approximately 18 countries, with approximately 6,000 employees.  A publicly traded company (NYSE: BBW), its revenue in 2008 was $467.9 million.  See

While Maxine Clark operates a retail chain, many of these key points are analogous to any person or entity providing a good or service.

Summary of Key Points:

  1. Be selective when hiring.  Hire employees who want a career rather than just a job.  If in retail, hire employees who have an intense curiosity in pop culture.
  2. Give employees a sense that you care about them and their professional development.  Allow them opportunities to contribute.
  3. Make sure your store experience is reflective of the brand image you want to market.
  4. How will your company expand into new markets?  Can you sell your products in a new location not already used by your competitors?
  5. Are you keeping your product or service “relevant” to your customers?
  6. Can you influence your target customer to visit your bricks and mortar store through a website, twitter, facebook, or youtube presence?
  7. What synergies can you establish with other companies or charities to cross promote your product or service?
  8. What universal human need does your product or service satisfy, if any?
  9. Do you know who your customer/client is and can you broaden that demographic?  Have you been talking to your customers?
  10. Do you have an updated, goal-specific, time-specific, “dream big” business plan for your enterprise?

I will blog about 3 points at a time.

1)  Be Selective When Hiring.

Hire people who care.  Maxine never hires someone who hates his or her current job and wants “out.”  She aims “to hire employees who like what they do and want to do it more.” Sounds simple- but this is a great HR rule by which to adhere.

2)  Give Employees A Sense That You Care About Them and Their Professional Development; Allow Them Opportunities to Contribute

Except for positions that require a technical expertise (i.e., the legal department), in Maxine’s company, each employee is given the opportunity to start somewhere and move upwards or even sideways.  While also recognizing the downsides of having too close of a work force, Maxine boasts of a fun, collegial, casual, corporate atmosphere at BAB.  It sounds almost utopic and too good to be true.  After studying “creating community” and “utopias” in college, I have always been interested in “what works” in any type of institution (a corporation, family, church, sorority, prison, military).  Whatever Maxine is doing, she seems to be doing it right.

How often a business owner forgets that “employee empowerment” often is a key ingredient to an efficient, productive workforce.  Employees need to feel as though they are doing more than just making money for their boss or for their firm.  Employees need to feel as though their boss is helping them hone skills that are transferable, that their presence and input matters.  Workers loaf socially and are inefficient where there is little to no accountability and a low morale.  Many of us have studied these ideas in our organizational behavior courses, but how many business owners actually put them to use.  Maxine does.

Maxine encourages us to be open to innovative ideas that can come from anyone in the company.  CASE IN POINT: Once, BAB received tons of boxes of ribbon in the wrong size.  Shipping the ribbons back would have been costly.  One young sales associate started making hair bows for the bears out of the smaller ribbons.  The hair ribbons now are a hit in the stores worldwide.  Maxine refers to these as “lemons to lemonade” ideas.

What are you doing to show your employees that you care?  Do you give them opportunities to MOVE UPWARDS or SIDEWAYS and to contribute?

3) Make Sure Your Store Experience Is Reflective of the Brand Image You Want to Market.

Maxine states that many consumers forget that a retail store is more than just a storefront and sales associates.  Retail chains are dynamic, multi-faceted business enterprises with legal, accounting, marketing/merchandising, distribution, customer service departments, etc.

Conversely, many retail managers in corporate forget that the most important aspect of a retail enterprise is the customer’s store experience.  Maxine warns college graduates that they should not even interview for a job with BAB if they have not even been to a BAB store to have the “customer store experience.”  How many of us will not even browse in certain high-end stores because we feel as though the sales associate wants a copy of our income tax return before assisting us?!!

What is your customer’s “store experience”?  If you do not have a bricks and mortar space, what about each and every interaction you have with your client/customer online, over the phone, or in person?  Is every aspect of this experience consistent with your brand image?  Do you communicate with your sales associates and employees what your brand image and philosophies are?  Are they well-known by all in the enterprise?

Comments on Maxine’s words of wisdom are welcome.  Stay tuned for blog entries re: key points 4 through 10.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2012 8:31 am

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