Most kids walk into Build-A-Bear to create their own customized stuffed animals. Many come home with a little something more: Maxine Clark's business card. Clark, the company's founder and CEO, visits two to three of her 200-plus stores a week, helping customers, chatting with employees, and, yeah, networking with preteens. "I'm on a lot of online buddy lists," she says. To return the thousands of emails she gets each week from customers, Clark totes along her own electronic comfort object—a well-traveled BlackBerry.
Besides a pair of sore thumbs, what does Clark get out of all this customer correspondence? "Ideas," she says. "I used to feel like I had to come up with all the ideas myself, but it's so much easier relying on my customers [for help]." The list of customer suggestions that have made their way onto shelves is always growing—from bear accessories like mini-scooters to mascot bears sold at sports stadiums.
To tap into customer reactions to those new ideas, Clark asks for feedback from her "virtual cub advisory council," a community of children on her email list. Scouting out a new location, Clark will email council members in an area to ask them which malls they shop at most. She'll poll her network to see if the latest trend she's spotted in New York—say, metallic sequined purses—might be worth rolling out as bear accoutrements.
A veteran of large corporations like May Department Stores and Payless ShoeSource, Clark says that running her own business requires "never forgetting what it's like to be a customer." But after eight years of expansion (with stores as far afield as South Korea and Denmark), the 56-year-old CEO finds herself at the helm of a global enterprise with $302 million in annual sales. Growth is slowing, however: Second-quarter earnings, at $3.5 million, were almost 30% lower than the year before. Clark will look for added growth from the launch of Friends 2B Made, a build-your-own-doll concept. Thirty million bears and a few dolls later, how does Clark maintain the same personal connection with customers? "With each child that enters our store, we have an opportunity to build a lasting memory," she says. "Any business can think that way, whether you're selling a screw, a bar of soap, or a bear."
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A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.