Maxine Clark

Maxine Clark

Photo courtesy of Build-A-Bear Workshop

Maxine Clark grew up in the decade of big dreams realized: T #topstory he color television was introduced, Disneyland opened and astronauts rocketed to the moon. From a young age, she says that inspiration taught her there were no limits, only a world of possibility. Today, the Build-A-Bear Workshop founder is affectionately gazing back on the journey of her own realized dream—110 million stuffed animals sold, 400 store openings and more than $4 billion in revenue—as she prepares to hand over the helm of the 16-year-old business, and look forward to her next creative project.

The concept of Build-A-Bear stemmed from Clark’s love for the retail world as a kid, and her own long-lost teddy bear. Growing up in Coral Gables, Fla., she would gaze up in wide-eyed wonderment at elaborate window displays in the mall. She followed that passion as a retail trainee at a division of the May Department Stores Company in Washington, D.C., where a job to pay for law school turned into the answer for her lifelong calling. “The defining moment came during my third week on the job…when I heard Stanley Goodman, former chairman of the May Department Store Company, give a speech,” Clark vividly recalls. “He talked about retailing as entertainment and the store as a stage. When a customer has fun, they spend more money, he said. That statement reached Clark as if he was talking to her, and her alone, and the concept stuck with her ever since.

For 19 years, Clark climbed the corporate ladder, working in the company’s various divisions, from merchandise development, planning and research, to marketing and product development. She went on to be president of Payless ShoeSource before deciding to strike out on her own. As a natural entrepreneur who had added extensive retail experience to her skill set, Clark quickly discovered the dream idea for her own business during a shopping trip with her 10-year-old friend, Katie. “It was the height of the Beanie Baby craze. The store didn’t have the one that we wanted and a disappointed Katie picked one up and said, These are so simple, we could make these.” While Katie was referring to going home to start a craft project, Clark knew this was the inspiration for her new business.

Soon, Build-A-Bear was born in St. Louis. Clark’s idea has been brought to life through experiential stores where kids create their own new best furry friend, from its heart and personality to its clothing, and even its actions in the virtual world at “I love watching children make their stuffed animals and seeing their affection for and attachment to their new furry friends. The experience is about personal self-expression and creativity, and being in a place where it’s all right to just be a kid again, whether you are 3 or 103,” Clark muses. And Build-A-Bear has touched people’s hearts in more ways than she ever dreamed. “I am proud that the company has done so well, but I am even more pleased that we are able to make so many people happy through simple actions. Our stores are exciting, yet comfortable, places where families go to have fun spending time together. That is our impact on the world.”

In 2012, six stores incorporated a new design that combines the love of stuffed animals with the best of innovative digital technology to enhance guests’ experiences. That new store design is set to be added into 25 existing stores this year. “Similar to how you might download a new app to your mobile device, we are able to update our stations seasonally and further personalize features as we go forward,” Clark explains.

For the next 'act' of her career, Clark plans to use the same talents that helped her redefine children’s retail to pave the way for new opportunities in the St. Louis educational community. “When I left the May Company in 1996 to become an entrepreneur, I did not know exactly what my new business venture would be. I knew it would be for kids and it would be experiential. In the same way, when I complete my role as 'Chief Executive Bear,' I will be able to bring my dream to reality for improving public education in the St. Louis community.”

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