Building a better bear

Maxine Clark, founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear, poses with Ohr Chadash writer Bella Adler.

By Bella Adler, Epstein Hebrew Academy

As founder and chief executive of Build-A-Bear, Maxine Clark is a “beary” important person.

Clark founded Build-A-Bear Workshop in October of 1997 at the St. Louis Galleria. Today, more than 400 stores belong to the worldwide company, which bring smiles to children everywhere.

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Clark said the idea for Build-a-Bear Workshop came from a simple day of shopping with a 10-year-old friend, Katie, for beanie babies, but the store was all out of them. Katie said, “Let’s just make our own.”

Build-A-Bear Workshop stores feature shelves and bins of stuffed animals, miniature clothing and computers, which allow you to register a bear with a name and give it a birth certificate. Stores are very colorful and kid-friendly. It is no-wonder more than 100 million teddy bears have been sold all over the world.

Clark, originally from Coral Gables, Fla., came from a modest background of always giving back.

“We used to have a tzedakkah box and every night my dad would empty his pockets into it. I would never go to sleep until I heard the rattling of the coins falling into the box,” Clark said.

While in college, at University of Georgia, Clark majored in journalism, pursuing her love of reading and writing. Clark also loves research and asking questions.

“The smart ones ask the questions,” Clark said.

“You are never too old to learn, and the ones that get old are the ones who stop learning. You could even be old at only 20,” Clark added.

After college, Clark went to work for May Company, working her way up the business ladder, eventually becoming head of Payless Shoe Source. Clark intended to go to law school but loved the retail business so much, she did not want to give it up.

“Do what you love, because otherwise it becomes a drag.” Clark said.

She says there are both enjoyable, but also difficult things about being a CEO.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of our customers love the company and give us only compliments, but it’s hard because, unintentionally, people take what we do and make it political,” Clark said. “Fortunately, I’m in a business that makes people happy.”

She also finds difficulty in the changing economy, and in having to make long-term decisions. But the benefits of being a CEO are meeting customers, getting ideas from them, giving back, and “being a part of [the customer’s] life,” she said.

Clark is married to Bob Fox, and the couple lives in Ladue. She spends her days managing Build-A-Bear Workshop from its headquarters in Overland. Clark said she has a favorite bear named “Curly Bobby,” which her husband made for her about 14 years ago at Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Clark is very involved in non-profit and charitable groups in the St. Louis area and beyond. One of the many organizations she supports is Teach for America, which works to ensure that even kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.

“I was inspired by my teachers when I was in school and I want other people to have that same experience.” Clark said.

Clark stands firm in her belief that being a hard worker, doing the research, asking questions, and loving what you do are all crucial to success.

“You have to love what you do because it is a 24/7/365 day job,” Clark said.

She also offers some advice to teenagers thinking about their futures.

“Experiencing different opportunities is important,” she said. “As a teenager you want those opportunities to see what is out there for you to do. Get a job, or tutor someone, or even do some volunteer work. Those experiences will prepare you for what’s coming next.”

Clark is very passionate about giving back, and that is one of the many benefits of owning a company, there are many opportunities to give.

“We rarely say no if it is a good cause.” Clark said.

“Giving often gets lost in politics, but no matter how little you have, there is always something to give back.”