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The bear necessities Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

Maxine Clark hears the same question from employees who’ve just been hired as she hears from those who have been with Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. since the company was founded 10 years ago.

“How are we going to keep the company like this?” Since its inception, Build-A-Bear has grown to more than 275 stores in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, along with franchise stores in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Revenue for fiscal 2006 totaled $437 million as kids both young and old flocked to their local Build-A-Bear store to create a cuddly stuffed animal of their own, with the help of the bright and cheery sales staff for which the company is known.

Clark, Build-A-Bear’s founder, chairman and CEO, credits the company’s success to its sharp focus on culture.

“I think everybody comes to work every day to make a contribution, no matter where they go to work,” Clark says. “For the most part, 99.9 percent come to make a difference every day. They want to be rewarded for their contribution. They want to be noticed. They don’t want to be anonymous. Our job as leaders is how do we make that happen every day? How do we make that come alive and transfer into results for the company and growth for the people individually?”

Developing a culture that meets these standards begins with the leader. But maintaining such a culture as the company grows and changes is a responsibility Clark says must be shared by each and every one of her 5,500 employees.

“The company is the people, not me,” Clark says. “It’s up to every single individual in the company because they interact with other people that are part of our company. I can’t interact with everyone every day. ... Everybody that works in our company and works in your company is part of that company’s brand. How do you make sure that they feel responsible about that and that they realize they work for a company that has certain values, even when they are in their daily life?”

It can start with something as simple as saying, “Hello.” “You’re automatically a mentor when you’re the boss or somebody that people look up to, and you have to take that seriously,” Clark says. “If I walk down the hall and I’m not saying, ‘Hi Susie; Hi Mary.’ ... People notice that I didn’t say hello to them. They may not say hello to me first. But that’s my job. It goes with the territory. And I like that job. Sometimes, you’re the cheerleader. Sometimes, you’re the disciplinarian. Sometimes, you’re just the greeter. Sometimes, you’re the hardest-working person in the building. Most often, that’s not me. You have a lot of roles as a leader, and those roles tell the company every day who you are and what you believe in.”

Here’s how Clark has conquered the challenges of culture to take Build-A-Bear to new levels of success.

Make it personal

When it comes to developing a culture, you should not be afraid to let your personal traits and qualities filter into what you want to develop.

“Somebody is a mountain climber, and every Friday, he wants to close his office because he wants to go mountain climbing,” Clark says. “That eventually becomes a part of the company culture. Maybe down the road, an exercise room is in the building built with a climbing wall. ... You have to know what it is you want your company to be and then execute around the things people can see and things people can touch and things they can just feel.”

For Clark, the design and location of her office says a lot about how she leads the way at Build-A-Bear. Clark’s office is at the center of the building and is painted yellow, matching the color of the company’s store locations.

“Whether we have one person in our office besides me or we have 15 or 150, we have open communication meetings,” Clark says. “My door is an open door. I sit in the middle of the building. People can always come in and talk to me. Everybody has total e-mail access to me. They have all my contact information. When I go out of town, I let everybody in this building know that I’m out of town and if they need me, to e-mail me.”

Clark says employees want to know that their leader cares just as much about the success of the company as they do.

“They’ll come to work, but it won’t be a fully contributing opportunity if they think you’re not serious about what you believe in and you don’t do it yourself,” Clark says. “People want to have people to look up to. They want to have heroes. Oftentimes, the only heroes they get to know are the people they work with.”

Culture is about more than how employees relate to and communicate with their leader. It needs to create an energy that employees feel when they come into work each day that will drive them to reach for success.

“You buy comfortable chairs for people and they realize that they are valuable and they take good care of them,” Clark says. “They are not just jumping up and down in their chair and then their chair breaks and you have to go out and order a new chair.”

Clark says simple things, such as having a recycling program to show the company cares about the Earth or hosting a Thanksgiving dinner where the company pays for the main part of the meal, help drive home the company’s culture.

“Sometimes, it’s the most simple thing,” Clark says. “It’s about how you look at the things and turn them into things that will energize your company, your vision and make the people feel good about themselves and feel responsible about the environment they work in.”

One of the best opportunities to show employees they are more than just a number on the ledger is to be there when they have a problem in their life outside the workplace. Clark uses the example of an employee who is coming to work late each day.

“Well, Susie is coming in late every day,” Clark says. “What you might have found out is she has to take the bus now because her car broke down and she can’t afford to get her car fixed. You look at it and say, ‘Gee, what’s behind this and what can we do to help?’ Maybe we change the hours because we don’t want her to be late. Now she comes in at 8:15 instead of 8, but she stays until 5:15. Work out things for people so that they can see that you do value their life and who they are as a person.”

Clark says having a culture where leaders care about their employees is something more easily communicated by action rather than a line in the company handbook.

“You just have to depend on the people that you’ve done the good things for saying, ‘Boy, I couldn’t get to work on time, but the company worked it out for me that I could still take the bus until my car was fixed,’” she says. “They feel good enough to share with others. That’s the best buzz that you can have about what your company culture is.”

Value uniqueness

Of course, if a company has a happy culture, but isn’t making money, the business likely won’t be around too long. And Clark says it would be a mistake, even for Build-A-Bear, to look exclusively for type A, shiny, happy personalities in each and every one of their employees.

“Everybody isn’t the same,” Clark says. “You don’t want it to be so homogeneous that nobody challenges each other. You don’t want it to be just like a lollipop cult where everybody is so happy. We value people’s challenges to our business. We want everybody to contribute. You have to accept people for who they are and help them be who they want to be — not who you want them to be, but who they want to be.”

One of the best ways to get an employee working at their full potential is to lay out a path to get ahead in the organization.

“People should see that they can grow in the company,” Clark says. “When you do have internal promotions, make sure that everyone knows about it. They can see, ‘Hey, Don got promoted. I can get promoted.’”

Employees, whether they are new to the organization or have been there for some time, also have to know specifically what it is that they are expected to do at the company.

“I do believe that people come to work for a career, but they have to know from time to time what that career is,” Clark says. “If you don’t share that with them, they will leave. The people will go where they can grow. They’ll stay if they can see you’re trying to help them.”

A culture in which employees are encouraged to improve and are given updates as to how much they are improving also helps weed out troublesome workers.

“If a store manager has not had a lot of turnover, that’s a good thing,” Clark says. “It could be a bad thing, too. If they are not letting bad people go, then they are hurting their company. Good people don’t stay when bad people stay. Over time, if you have 20 people on your staff, and five of them are terrible, you’re going to lose five people because of it. That’s just the way it works. Good people do not want to work around people who are not making a contribution.

“The best thing you can do for somebody who is not making the kind of contribution that they need to make is to help them find another job. I’ve said to people, ‘If you’re not happy here, come to me. Tell me. I know a lot of people. I’ll help you find another job.’ If they are a good person and they didn’t steal and they showed up on time and this just isn’t the place for them, there are a lot of other places that would be for them. Every company has its own little personality.”

Sorting out the good from the bad to come up with a cohesive team of employees is a constantly evolving process. The leader who ignores the importance of culture in building their business will likely find problems.

“It takes so many people to make a good company,” Clark says. “The competitive landscape is such that you’re going to be competing with people who are going to figure out that it takes people to make a successful business. ... As a leader, I think you can take people at least a few notches past where they ever thought they were going to go and maybe even farther. That’s the fun of it. It’s helping people grow to be all they can be.”

HOW TO REACH: Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc., www.buildabear.com