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Corporate Culture: Build-A-Bear Workshop

Marilyn Vise


World Bearquarters is far from typically corporate, and that is just the way Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop, likes it.

Employees zoom down the blue-carpeted hallways on scooters, dogs and kids are welcome in the office and most of the colorful desks are cluttered with, well, stuffed bears.

"We try not to take things too seriously," said Clark, chief executive of the create-your-own toy maker. "Our core belief is that people come to work to make a contribution. We want to make sure that we don't put anything in the way of that."

The company offers flexible work schedules and telecommuting. Both the men's and women's bathrooms are equipped with diaper-changing stations and there is a room with a TV set and toys for workers' children.

"We don't want our employees to have to worry about things like that," Clark said. "This isn't rocket science. We are trying to make people smile."

Each employee gets 15 "honey days" a year to use for vacation, illness or whatever the person wishes. Build-A-Bear also contributes $100 annually toward a wellness program, such as a health club membership.

Part of the corporate culture is reflected in the titles. Employees are called associates and have titles like professor of bearology, honey manager and bearitory leader.

"So many places are so focused on titles," Clark said. "We wanted ours to be fun. Kids write and call me `mama bear,' and I don't mind that at all."

Judges in the Best Places to Work contest were impressed with the unique and creative atmosphere and efforts to keep employees informed. "Recently, they put in place a process whereby all employees can receive feedback from individuals and departments they support." They also credited the "Guest Feedback" as a tool that lets workers know how they measure up and what "op-bear-tunities" they have to improve.

Clark especially loves Guest Feedback and regularly shares letters from customers with the staff.

"We celebrate these," Clark said holding a stack of fan mail.

Since opening Build-A-Bear in 1997, Clark has worked to create a corporate culture that would inspire creativity and encourage employees to stay. She started up with $750,000 of her own money and later secured more than $11 million in venture capital financing.

There are 100 associates at Bearquarters and more than 1,700 full- and part-time employees nationally. Last year, Build-A-Bear had $50 million in revenue, up from $20 million in 1999.

"It stopped being about me along time ago," Clark said. "Now the company has taken on the attributes of all the people that work here."

There's no dress code, and it is not unusual to see even top execs, such as Chief Operations Bear Brian Vent, sporting blue jeans and sandals.

"That is one of the benefits," Vent said. "People get to come to work here and be themselves."

Clark said the relaxed dress code reflects her philosophy of promoting a creative and fun work environment.

"It is not what people wear that dictates how hard they work or how creative they are," she said. "You'd be hard pressed if you worked in a place like this and had to dress up every day."

For Bev Schofield, head creative bear, the environment is a welcome change from the typical corporate atmosphere.

"It's happy, upbeat, busy and fun," Schofield said. "You are allowed to be goofy."

Vent, who has been at Build-A-Bear for three years, loves the place.

"We do nice things," Vent said. "To be in a business where the way you make money is by making people happy is a cool thing."

The fun-loving environment at Bearquarters spills into the 44 Build-A-Bear Workshops in malls and shopping centers throughout the country.

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