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The Entrepreneur Factor

Inspiration often strikes at odd times. This was definitely the case for Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear. Clark was an executive at May Co. (know Macy’s) before being promoted to president of Payless ShoeSource, one of the company’s discount brands, in 1992. Although Clark was financially satisfied, she realized her job was lacking any creativity. Clark left the company in 1996 in search of a more fulfilling job.

Clark was in search of Ty Beanie Babies with her friend’s kids one day, but they couldn’t find any Beanie Babies the kids didn’t already have. Katie, her friend’s daughter, picked up one of the stuffed toys and said we could make one of these. This suggestion set a light bulb off in Clark’s brain. While young Katie envisioned making a small stuffed animal at home, Clark set her sights bigger, envisioning a store that would allow kids to create their own customized stuffed animals.

Although most of the parents she discussed the idea with didn’t see the appeal, the kids were ecstatic about the idea. Clark formed a Cub Advisory Board, made up of children who gave their opinions about the products and services Clark wanted to offer. After withdrawing $750,000 from her retirement savings, Clark opened the first Build-a-Bear Workshop at the St. Louis Galleria. On opening day, the lines stretched out the door.

Build-a-Bear started with just bears and a variety of clothing, but later added shoes and other accessories, as well as a plethora of different plush animals. The company has licenses with Disney and several major league sports teams so shoppers can make Disney-themed characters or dress their stuffed animals in official sports gear.

Clark added a few investors in 1998 and 1999, but had to start turning investors away because the company didn’t need their money. Today, there are more than 150 Build-a-Bear Workshops in 19 countries. The majority of their stores are located in major shopping malls within the U.S., however, the company is rapidly expanding overseas and into smaller markets and tourist destinations.

 

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