Friday, April 20, 2007

Teddy Bear Multimillionaire Story

Maxine Clark rode to riches on the back of a teddy bear. Clark opened her first Build-A-Bear Workshop in a St. Louis shopping mall in 1997. Now the international chain generates $360 million in sales annually and has made Clark a multimillionaire.

In Clark’s stores, kids of all ages line up to create stuffed animals in what look like factories run by Dr. Seuss on casual Fridays. Guided by a peppy staff clad in denim and khakis, customers produce personalized teddy bears and other creatures. “We really are a theme park in a mall,” says Clark.

Would-be designers spend an average of 45 minutes crafting their custom-made creations. They pick a pelt, size the stuffing, choose clothes, accessories and even furniture, name the beast and leave with a one-of-a-kind toy. For $85, you could construct a stuffed panda that sings “I love you” in Spanish, wears an official Oakland AUs uniform, carries a fake camera cell phone and resides in a display case that looks like an armoire.

Clark’s playful idea was backed up with 25 years of toil in the retail business. Clark joined May Department Stores as an executive trainee in women’s sportswear in 1972, shortly after graduating from the University of Georgia. She climbed her way up the corporate ladder and ran Payless ShoeSource for more than three years before starting her own company.

Clark advises aspiring entrepreneurs to gain experience in a field that stokes their passion. “If you want to own a restaurant, go work in one,” she says. At May, she helped develop the company’s logistics system, a project that taught her how to manage a large chain of stores. “It would have taken me a lot longer to learn how to do that on my own,” she says, “and Build-A-Bear would be at 50 stores today instead of 300.

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