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A Conversation with Maxine Clark, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop
Q. Tell me a little about how you started Build-A-Bear workshop.
A. I have been in the retail business for over 25 years starting as an executive trainee at the May department Stores in 1972 and rising to be the President of Payless ShoeSource in 1992. Payless was then the largest division of May but has since been spun off as a separate public company.
Early in my career I heard the then CEO of May, Stanley Goodman, say, “Retailing is entertainment and the store is a stage and when the customer has fun, they spend more money.” That comment was a seminal moment for me and guided me in my successful rise thru May – creating businesses and opportunities within businesses that could connect with the Guest.
I loved my job but felt there was more to do and left to start my own business focused on bringing the fun back to retailing. My background is merchandising and marketing and I felt I could do something much more creative in a smaller company.
Q. Who are some of the people you have looked to as mentors since you founded Build-A-Bear Workshop (BABW)? How have they helped you with starting and running your own company?
A. My partners have been very strong mentors, as have our suppliers. Having been a successful business person running a $2.5 billion company prior to creating BABW, I didn’t need the same advice that other young companies would. But, their experience in different business aspects was really helpful from financial to sports and entertainment to compensation and benefits. ALWAYS they understood what I wanted to create and helped me deliver on that dream.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your role as a mentor for people within the organization and beyond the organization.
A. I want everyone at Build-A-Bear Workshop to have the kind of career I had at May – one where everyday is a learning and growing experience that prepares them for the future that they see for themselves AND also helps them see the even bigger picture – I call it dream the dream supreme – way beyond what you think is possible but you have to envision it first. At BABW people contribute at so many levels – we don’t want accounting people just doing accounting or buyers just buying. We want people to stretch and see all places that they could contribute.
I also try to set an example for community service and giving back to our Guests and I think that is important for businesses to do for their associates…we do not operate businesses in a vacuum. We like to say it takes a village to raise a bear and we as a growing and thriving company are part of the village.
Outside of BABW I like to work with students and aspiring entrepreneurs and see if I can guide them in the right direction. Make introductions where possible, read business plans, etc. I don’t have as much time as I would like for this. Some months I can get 100 emails or calls from people who need someone to listen, but I do my best. There are so many great ideas out there and I try to emphasize that ideas are worthless unless there is implementation and that is what takes the work, planning and the capital.
Q. What have you gotten out of being a mentor?
A. You get as much as you give. I have met so many wonderful people and seen some fun businesses get going. It is great to help people see their dream develop.
Q. What advice would you give to someone becoming a mentor for the first time?
A. Be honest and candid at all times but also encouraging. You can’t thwart the total creative process but you also have to be practical…this is a very fine line. Also be upfront about the time you can commit.
Q. What would you tell someone who is looking for mentoring or coaching to make it more successful for them?
A. Be realistic about you needs – know what you don’t know and be willing to find that in others and be able to listen. One mentor or coach may not be able to give you all the answers – probably won’t, so you need to find complimentary mentors or coaches to help you see the possibilities and get into implementation. You also have to accept the positive and the negative feedback and balance it with your passion and vision…no easy task!
Q. Is there anything else you want to add about mentoring or coaching?
A. If you are looking for someone to give you money – go to investors.
If you are looking for someone to tell you yes, get a programmable robot.
If you are looking for someone to help you see your dream to reality find someone who is (at least) three times as smart and as experienced as you and listen and enjoy. The learning – trying-failing, trying-succeeding is all in the journey to success.