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biznotes-buildabear-largeAlthough she was unable to attend Voices of Experience due to illness, Maxine Clark, founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, told the Voices of Experience audience on February 21 via a video message that big goals and a lot of heart were the inspiration for the company she founded in 1997.

“People often ask how was I able to take the rough idea for Build-A-Bear Workshop and turn it into such a successful business,” said Clark. “Above all, it simply started when I allowed myself to dream. And I’m a true believer in dreaming big.”

Clark originally planned on going to law school, but after taking a job as an executive trainee with May Department Stores, she found herself working her way up the corporate ladder in the retail industry, both at May and Payless ShoeSource, where she was president. Inspired by the words of Stanley Goodman, CEO of May—who said that retailing is entertainment and when the customer has fun, they spend more money—Clark learned early on that the best retail concepts were energetic and most important, fun.

When she left Payless in 1996, Clark set out to do something unique. She founded Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997 in St. Louis, Missouri, saying, “we put an entirely new experiential spin on the teddy bear business.” And indeed being different has been the key to success of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

In Clark’s place, Paul Bundonis, chief workshop bear, spoke to the Voices of Experience audience. Bundonis’s first experience with Build-A-Bear was when he was the vice president of stores at Zany Brainy, a specialty toy retailer. His company approached Build-A-Bear during their early success about a possible merger, but ultimately opened a Vermont Teddy Bear store within one of their New Jersey Zany Brainy retail locations. The initial store was a great success, but the five that followed were not. “We learned our lesson,” said Bundonis, who joined Build-A-Bear Workshop in 2006 as managing director of stores, West, and has been the chief workshop bear, North America, since 2011. “Bears were not the only thing we did.”

Build-A-Bear Workshop has grown to more than 400 stores worldwide, including 350 company-owned stores in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. The company also has franchise stores in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and South America.

Bundonis shared stories of the connection that Build-A-Bear Workshop strives to make with each and every customer. From the soldier being deployed for war who makes a bear with his voice forever recorded in it to the little girl building a bear for a hospitalized child, every bear experience conjures up the emotions of creativity, self-expression, empowerment and friendship.

In 2012, the company unveiled its first “store of the future.” Two years of intensive focus groups with “cub advisor” children and their parents helped Build-A-Bear Workshop assess their retail space and identify the areas of the store that created the happiest, best consumer experience. They then incorporated enhanced sensory and interactive features throughout the store. In 2013, Build-A-Bear Workshop will roll out the new store experience at its locations around the world.

Bundonis was quick to note that despite the technological advances, the bear-making experience remains very personal. “Our bear builders will always be the star of the show,” he said. From Build-A-Bear Workshop’s store associates and workshop managers to its leadership, the company looks for employees who share the company’s core values: reach, learn, give, colla-bear-ate and cele-bear-ate.

Build-A-Bear Workshop was named by Fortune magazine as one of the top 100 companies to work for in 2013 for the fifth year in a row. “We’re a company with heart,” said Bundonis. The bear-making experience, he added, is special and personal—and those very values are the ones that define who the company strives to be for their guests and one another.

“It’s the same way we look at our associates,” said Bundonis. “Each one is unique. Each one is special. Each one is valued. We won’t settle for anything less, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”