Before becoming an entrepreneur, Maxine Clark worked for large retailers. Although she enjoyed working for large companies she was looking for a change. She wanted to have more fun at work. In contemplating this change, Clark recalls that “[e]arly in my career, Stanley Goodman, who was then CEO of May, said something that has stuck with me: ‘Retailing is entertainment, and when customers have fun, they spend more money.’ I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it would involve children, because kids know how to enjoy themselves.”
“As a child, shopping was a magical experience for Maxine Clark.¼ [I]n 1996 she set out to blaze her own path in retail with the goal of recreating that special feeling from her childhood.” She founded Build–A–BearWorkshop, which is “the only global company that offers an interactive ‘make your own stuffed animal’ retail-entertainment experience.”[iii] As of mid-2011, Build-A-Bear operates more than 400 stores worldwide. Company-owned stores are located in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France. Franchise stores are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.[iv]
Although Build-A-Bear Workshop was ‘the brainchild’ of Maxine Clark, she credits the company’s successful business plan to her godchild, Katie. Caught up in the Beanie Baby craze of the mid-1990s, Clark and her godchild talked about “how it would be ‘cool’ to build your own Beanie Babies” ¾ and a business plan for what would become Build-A-Bear Workshops began emerging.[v]
“Since the retailer opened its first store in a St. Louis mall in 1997, skeptics have warned that the concept wouldn’t last.”[vi] According to Clark, “[a]dults told me my idea wouldn’t work. ‘Who wants to make their own stuffed animals?’ they argued. But every kid said, ‘Where is it? When can I do it?’ “[vii]
However, the company “keeps defying critics with strong gains as it broadens its geography, customer types and menagerie.”[viii] Build-A-Bear’s core customer demographic is the group known as ‘female tweens’ ¾ but the Build-A-Bear product line appeals to a wide range of customers.[ix] Locating stores at zoos and ballparks, which is part of the company’s ongoing expansion plan, is intended to enhance the product line’s appeal for boys, who, in mid-2006, represented only about a quarter of the company’s customers.[x] Building on the Build-A-Bear success, the company also has launched two additional make-your-own business lines: friends2Bmade for customers to make dolls, and Build-A-Dino, located in T-Rex cafe restaurants, where customers create their own dinosaurs.[xi]
So, who is Maxine Clark, the woman behind the Build-A-Bear Workshop success story? Dubbed “the Oprah Winfrey of the retail industry ¾ compassionate, creative and charismatic,” Maxine Clark “is a feisty, seasoned ex-May Department Stores veteran who doesn’t let one detail get by her.”[xii] As the founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, Maxine Clark “charmed consumers and wowed Wall Street with a concept that set a new template for interactive experiential retailing.”[xiii] Clark’s success has captured the intense interest of others. “In fact, it’s been the inspiration for numerous imitators; Clark herself is a majority investor and key driver behind the launch of Ridemakerz, a toy-car customizing experience.”[xiv]
Clark asserts that Build-a-Bear workshop isn’t just selling a physical product; it is selling an emotional experience as well. She backs this assertion up with some powerful and moving examples. “Mothers bring their children [to Build-A-Bear] after the death of a grandparent or a beloved pet, and parents leaving for Iraq or Afghanistan record their voices in little sound modules they drop into the bears.”[xv] An even more tear-jerking example is the case of “two men bring[ing] in the 8-year-old girl they adopted just this morning and whisper [to the Build-A-Bear Associate] that she was abandoned by her mother, a drug-addicted prostitute.”[xvi]
“Clark and her team work hard to find associates that are not only capable, but who also care about providing a great Build-A-Bear experience ¾ whether it’s a happy one or a sad one. ‘A Build-A-Bear associate has to be able to handle the smiles and the tears,’ Clark explained. ¼ We’re a business that stands for memories, and those memories can be both happy and sad. Our greatest success has been finding associates who understand that.”[xvii] Clark observes that “[t]he teddy bear has sort of been a quintessential symbol for love, trust, security and cuddliness. But you always want to make it relevant, so if skinny jeans or leggings are popular, our bears can wear that. We also stay up with popular culture.”[xviii]
“When customers create toys at Build-a-Bear Workshop, they make something that is theirs alone. The experience is about self-expression and creativity. At Build-a-Bear it’s all right to act like a kid. That’s appealing to people who are 10 or 60.”[xix]
- How would you describe Maxine’s Clark’s personality? What implications do her personality characteristics have for her behavior as the CEO of Build-A-Bear? Read also Personality Assessment
- What are the desired personality characteristics of Build-A-Bear Associates? How might these personality characteristics influence the associates’ work behaviors?
- Describe the perceptions that Maxine Clark has of Build-A-Bear customers. How have these perceptions influenced Clark’s approach to developing the Build-A-Bear business model?
- Would you enjoy or not enjoy working at Build-A-Bear Workshop? Explain your answer.
SOURCE: This case was written by Michael K. McCuddy, The Louis S. and Mary L. Morgal Chair of Christian Business Ethics and Professor of Management, College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University.
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