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It Takes a Village

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There’s been a sea change in recent years in the relationship between technology leaders and their organizations, according to Build-A-Bear Workshop CIO Dave Finnegan. If you’re a retail CIO, it used to be about justifying your existence. “Now,” said Finnegan, “it’s really about, ‘Here are the pieces and the functionality we need. How fast can you deliver it?” This insight came in the context of a panel discussion on the first day of NRFtech 2012 entitled “Focus on the Guest and the Rest Will Follow.” Maxine Clark, Build-A-Bear’s founder, chief executive bear and chairman, said Finnegan’s role, “probably more than any other single executive, has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. IT always reported to me, because it has always been a key part of our being. We sell stuffed animals, but we also sell an experience, and the experience is very closely tied to the technology. Every decision we make at Build-A-Bear — from our new store of the future, which will be launching in a few weeks, to social media, to our marketing strategy, to lease accounting — goes through the IT department.” This means that IT maintains a network of strategic relationships with senior leadership. “I worked in organizations in the past,” Finnegan said, “where you had a very smart leader of technology — but that person couldn’t partner or collaborate or communicate, so it didn’t really matter how smart they were, they couldn’t get innovation started. “So for me, it isn’t about being the smartest person,” he said. “To me, it’s vital that I lock arms with our CMO and we work together on a project ... I do that with the operating officer and CFO as well. All of these relationships are key to unlocking the potential of technology.”

Bears and relationships Build-A-Bear began when Clark, who’d worked for the May Company for 25 years before starting a store of her own, was shopping with a young friend for a stuffed animal. When they couldn’t find what they wanted, the girl commented that they could make the toys themselves. Inspiration struck, and in 1997 Clark opened the first Build-A-Bear Workshop in St. Louis. Now Build-A-Bear Workshop is a public company with more than 400 stores in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, the U.K. and Ireland, and franchise stores in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and South America. It reported total revenues of $394.4 million in fiscal 2011. Before the company existed, Clarke went to the NRF Big Show in New York to find somebody to help her put together an IT system for her brainchild. “I knew what I wanted,” she said. “It was what I had asked for at May Company, but could not get because they had giant mainframe systems. When you went to talk to the head of IT, in fact, you actually walked into a freezer.” The major IT exhibitors at the show didn’t seem interested in helping Clarke, but one finally sent her to a company then called Retail Pro. “The system worked out, but the best part of it was the local salesman,” Clarke said. “He really helped me.” What she was looking for was essentially what retailers are trying to build today: inventory, store ops and customer relationship management systems, all tied together. “In the Build-A-Bear store,” Clark said, “you begin by picking an animal. The animal has a barcode. The barcode stays with you down to the last transaction, when you pick up your birth certificate at checkout. That became our database. “I knew I wanted a way to have all this information, but wasn’t sure how I was going to get it. The salesman told me I didn’t need all this fancy RFID, which everybody was pushing and which I could never have afforded. He said, ‘Let’s just do a barcode.’” The rest, Clark said, is history. “We opened up stores, and we did what nobody else had done: Customers actually paid us to make them a stuffed animal, and they gave us the information to have a relationship with them — all without much effort. “So Build-A-Bear was always about making cute stuffed animals, but it was also about a very personal commitment to technology and data collection that was invisible to the customer. It didn’t feel like technology: It felt like a birth certificate, it felt like a game on the computer.”

It’s all one The centrality of IT, and of the CIO, was really part of Build-A-Bear from Day One. “Over the years,” Clark said, “Dave has had a variety of responsibilities. He’s had planning and allocation report to him. He’s had a lot of things that you might not necessarily think he would have.” “Who would have thought, all the way back when we did [it], that your website would be tied to your store inventory, so you could make sure the customer could pick it up in the store or buy it online?” she said. “But that’s how integral all these disciplines really are today, and they have to be really connected at the hip. It’s not a system vs. a person — it’s all one.” Asked about the evolution of the working relationship between the IT and executive teams by moderator Vicki Cantrell, NRF’s senior vice president of communities and executive director, Clark said it has been “better than I expected but not different than I expected, because I really felt, in my whole life in the retail business, that that was the one thing that was missing. “In fact, the May Company had ultimately built IT centers and data centers that were in another place, totally off campus of the main headquarters. And just as I was leaving to start my own business, management was fighting about whether they were going to allow employees to use e-mail — to use these systems for better communication.” This was not a conversation Clark wanted to participate in. “I just thought, this is wrong. I had no idea how my company was going to unfold, but it just felt like it was going to be real different. And the day we opened Build-A-Bear Workshop ... we had a website. We were totally set up to be ready for the 21st century, and we were ready to roll. Nobody bought anything on the website the first few months we were open, but later it made a big difference in our being able to grow and integrate quickly.”