Exclusive Interview: Paul Marks – General Manager of Build-A-Bear Workshop Gulf States

Build-a-bear

Paul Marks, a man with over 30 years retailing experience, starting as a management trainee with Marks & Spencer before spending 14 years in International Retail Development & Operations with Toys R Us International Division. After 5 years in the Airport Duty Free Industry he ran his own Retail Consultancy, Retail Management Solutions, advising International Airport Retailers and the Indian Government on Airport Retail Concourse Design and Franchisee and Operator selection.

There then followed a number of consultancy roles in Dubai, where he has been based for the past 18 years, with international brands such as Nike, Timberland, McDonalds, The Emirates Group, Standard Charted Bank and Nakheel’s Retail Division, Retailcorp. This led to Paul’s appointment as Lead Retail Consultant for Dubai Maritime City and Nakheel Northern projects. In his new role as General Manager with Build-A-Bear Workshop Paul will focus on growing the brand throughout the GCC and MENA region while at the same time looking for partnership and investment opportunities that will ensure an attractive proposition for growth.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr.Marks after being invited to visit build-a-bear workshop store in Kuwait to live the experience as a whole; definitely a fun and bonding activity to do with your child. You will read about my visit in a soon-to-follow post, for now, get a glimpse on the experience from the man himself, Mr. Paul Marks.

Paul Marks Pic

Thesidetalk: Where did the idea of building a bear come from? And when?
a: Build-A-Bear workshop has been around for 15years. Our founder, Maxine Clark came up with the idea. She was in retail, with a friend of hers who had ran out of collecting, a product called beanie babies. That’s when Maxine suggested making your own. It was the champagne moment in 1997. This light bulb moment lead to Maxine moving out of corporate retail. She wanted to do something with children & build a system wherein she could engage with the customers. Everybody always wants bear and it’s a fun thing.

Thesidetalk: How important is a toy for a child’s development?
a: It’s a really interesting, I get this question a lot at the moment particularly as we have a lot of children on the ipad using social networks. If we go back to family and friends, what’s the first thing we see in a crib? It’s a teddy bear or it’s a soft toy or a cuddly toy. Within us, we have this innate desire to nurture or to be nurtured. The cuddly toy or the ability to hug or hold something its part of human nature. We are often surprised how early that starts in a child’s development. It’s not the toy itself, it’s the creativity that goes with it/. It’s the game playing, stimulating the children’s imagination. The cuddly toys sparks the creative juices and gets people thinking. That’s the real value of a cuddly toy and any object, be it a doll or a car sparks child’s imagination.

Thesidetalk: Did the rise of the iPad affect the toys industry?
a: That’s a very interesting question and a favourite one. We see so many children on iPads and I think we are past this, at the end of the day we live in a modern world and the iPad is a part of that. I think it does much good as it does damages; there are a lot of educational games and apps on it. It’s kind of replaced the television; when we were kids we would stick to educational videos. I think at the end of the day it’s about the balance in life. Ultimately it’s the parents’ priorities and prerogative to limit the use of it and it’s their duty to manage the content and to encourage children to get outside to play. There’s always a place for children to play with their bears! I have a standard phrase I use in this case, “you can’t hug an iPad”.

Thesidetalk: At this tech-savvy time we live in, how hard is it to still be one of the few making a good old teddy bear?
a: Since you have gone in to our stores, you will see how the process is not just about buying a bear but its more about enjoying the experience. One this I find interesting particularly in conferences is when I hold a bear up and the audience smiles. You pick up a bear and the common and first thing they say is “how cute is that”. You can then go wiggle the arm or screw its face up and you have people giggling and guess what it’s just the bears; it’s one of those things going back to the nurturing aspect, it triggers something in the human mind when they see anything that’s cuddly or cute. Look at YouTube, 90 percent of the million people watch videos of babies, cats and dogs doing things that are cute. I think that’s a part of it and I think there’s always a place for general cuteness and cuddliness. I think there’s a place for both, there isn’t competition between tech-savvy people/technology and cuddly toys.

Thesidetalk: How do you mix the traditional teddy bear with what makes it more appealing for children of today?
a: I think of the things that particularly interesting about Build-A-Bear Workshop is we do not actually sell teddy bears, we sell an experience. One of the greatest satisfactions we often surprised or it never stops surprising is sometimes watching the parent. While they are going through the building process, watching their children enjoy the process. Technology comes in play is through our new media, how people share information. If you look at instagram or any social networking websites, if we put up a picture of a kid building a bear or the bear doing something daft – we get 83 to 90 likes within a minute. This is where technology comes in – playing an important role and is a new vehicle of spreading the word. As I said earlier, it’s not a competition and you don’t have to embrace technology overtime. Louis Vuitton is still going to be Louis Vuitton handbags. You don’t need a microchip in them to tell that you’ve got home; it’s still a beautiful product. Technology is now used to tell a story.

Thesidetalk: Do you think children receive enough learning or value from toys, characters or apps?
a: It’s really a difficult question; I think it’s about content. There’s a lot to be said about educational app. I think there are two parts to it – you always want to stimulate a child whether it’s a Mickey Mouse on the television 20 years or my little pony on an app. This is all part of entertainment that’s about making people giggle or have a bit of fun. On the other hand, the more serious side is educational and again there are probably more apps, then ever were television programs teaching you to count, to play, to discover, to go on adventures. And I think as I said earlier combining the two is the key. Balancing playing around outside, sitting at home quietly telling a story to your bear or learning a new tune or singing a song on an app. I think there’s a place for everything.

Thesidetalk: In you own words; tell us about the build-a-bear experience.
a. As a retailer, it’s all about engaging a customer and creating a relationship. From a child’s point of view, it’s really about the fun. We say, we don’t sell bear – we sell love, hugs and smiles. The child comes in and sees their bear stuffed on the wall. They can put a sound it in, and they can go to the big lovely stuffing machines, press the peddle and go on to stuffing the bear at the same time. They can give it a hug test to check if it’s the right level of hugability. Then, there’s a special moment, where they make special wishes and put the heart in the bear. The children can dress it, personalise it, and accessorise it with sunglasses, shoes & everything. They also get to name the bears and make its birth certificate. This leads to a whole new level of interactive play on our website and soon on our apps. There are actually processes, that we call – choose me, hear me, stuff me, fluff me, dress me, name me and finally take me home. Our customers don’t just leave the store and we don’t call it checking out but we call it the ‘take me home’. The bear gets popped into its own distinctive condo a little house and take it home. There’s a lot to it, from the minute you enter our stores. Our bear builders spend over 30mins with each customers, it’s a real argument.

Thesidetalk: What’s next?
a. One of the things that are always great fun is that although we are called Build-A-Bear Workshop we have very many furry friends and we found that in the Middle East and that four legged animals are very popular and we are delighted that we have six very successful stores and we’ll have 10 by the end of the year. Dubai Mall is the top international store amongst 86 franchises. Kuwait is always up there which means it resonates with the local population as much as expats. And we hope between now and 10 stores and in maybe five years we should be a AED50 Million business with over 15 stores. We are going to get involved in other countries which are great fun. The future looks bright and most of all it’s fun.

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