Build-A-Bear's C.E.O., on the Courage to Branch Out

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I GREW up in Fayetteville, Tenn. I remember it as a small town with a lovely town square. My grandmother lived close by, in a white Victorian house that had been in my family for generations. It had a wraparound porch and a yard with a tire swing and oak trees. I spent many summer nights chasing fireflies in that yard.

After high school, I enrolled in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where I majored in communications and advertising. I liked advertising because it meshed two of my favorite subjects, art and psychology. I received a bachelor's degree in 1986.

After a couple of years working at a Knoxville ad agency, I decided in 1989 that if I was going to work in advertising, I needed to go to the mecca, New York City. It was hard to leave everything behind, especially when I'd hardly ever been out of the South and my parents didn't want me to go. But I was determined.

I gave up my apartment and got a plane ticket for a one-week trip to New York. I used an advertising directory to select names at top agencies, called those people and asked if I could send them my résumé and have them walk it to the human resources department. Then I called the H.R. department and referred to the employee who delivered my résumé. My goal was to schedule three interviews a day and have a job by the end of the week. I had 15 interviews, and one agency asked me to return that Friday afternoon.

On that second interview, I spoke to the head of the account executive training program, who said she'd get back to me. I said: "Why? What else do you need to know?" Then she said the job paid $24,000 a year, and I said I'd do it for $25,000. I don't know where I got the nerve, but I had cut off my options, and when you do that, it's amazing what you can accomplish. I got the job.

Some of my colleagues in the training program came from Ivy League schools, and I felt I had to prove myself. By doing more than expected, I completed the program in three months -- nine months early -- and was promoted to assistant account executive. I stayed at that agency, DDB Needham Worldwide, until 1991, when I left to join what was then Backer Spielvogel Bates. My clients at both were in the confections industry.

I found the client side of advertising interesting, which spurred me to attend the Columbia University School of Business in 1993 for an M.B.A. After that, I held executive positions at Mattel, working on the Barbie and Disney businesses. Eventually I moved to Hasbro, where I managed toy brands including Transformers, Nerf and My Little Pony. In 2008 I was promoted to general manager and senior vice president of the global preschool division.

In 2010, Stride Rite hired me as president of its Children's Group. In addition to the Stride Rite brand and retail stores, I was responsible for marketing the Sperry Top-Sider, Saucony and Keds brands of children's shoes. I also managed Stride Rite license agreements with companies including Disney.

In June, I was recruited as president and C.E.O. of Build-A-Bear Workshop, which allows children to create custom stuffed animals. It's a tremendous opportunity for anyone to lead a publicly traded company, and with my history in children's toys, it's a natural next step for me.

I'd tell young people that certain talents come naturally, but that you can't use your innate abilities as an excuse not to master inadequacies. In my case, having started my career on the creative side, I felt that getting an M.B.A. was important to be able to branch out. You need to play to your strengths but not ignore your weaknesses, and you have to be brave to do both.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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