Friday, March 5, 2010

Happy Bear-day

Do you share a birthday with anyone you know? Not just the date you were born, but the actual day?

I do.

For years I would tell people I was born on the date the Alamo fell, March 6. Now I tell people I was born the same exact day (and same year, for those who may be confused about this) as Maxine Clarke.

Most people reading this blog probably never heard of Maxine. Her business title is Chief Executive Bear. She is the founder and head of Build-A-Bear Workshops.

I’ve known Maxine for close to 30 years, but only in the last 10 or so did we discover our birthday link. When I first encountered her, Maxine was VP Marketing for Venture Stores, a poor facsimile of Target Stores. Based in St. Louis, Venture was part of the May Department Stores Company. Led by David Farrell, known in the retail industry as King David, May had a steel-firm policy of not talking to the press. Under his direction and that of Julius Seeherman, chairman of Venture, Maxine kept a tight lip. Even after she left Venture to be president of Payless ShoeSource, at the time another May division which was spun off, Maxine kept a profile lower than her under-five-foot stature.

In 1997, after leaving Payless, Maxine developed the idea for Build-A-Bear and opened her first store in St. Louis. She’s been talking to me about her project from the get-go and has become one of the more accessible executives I have ever met. The company is now publicly traded and has more than 400 stores around the world.

There are few, if any, more imaginative, creative, effervescent, community-minded and dedicated retailers than Maxine. She and husband Bob Fox have no children of their own, but millions of kids cherish the loving companions they created through her entrepreneurial genius.