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Build-A-Bear CEO Goes ‘Undercover’


Going undercover isn’t easy. But it can definitely be worth the effort. Just ask Sharon Price John, president and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

John took the reins of the experiential retailer in 2013, challenged with returning the company to profitability. Under her leadership, Build-A-Bear has undergone a financial turnaround and made some important changes, ranging from a brand refresh and an increased focus on licensed properties to the launch of several new formats, including a more interactive store model, which has been well received by customers. The company now has approximately 400 stores worldwide.

With Build-A-Bear back on track, the chief executive wanted to go out our in the field to see — and experience — firsthand how some of the changes were being received by employees. But she was wanted unfiltered feedback. Enter her recent star turn on the Emmy Award-winning CBS reality show, “Undercover Boss,” for which she donned a disguise (a wig and glasses) and assumed a new identity.

As part of her undercover stint, John spent time at several locations. She trained with a bear builder (store associate), a warehouse associate, an assistant manager and a Build-A-Party leader. (To stream the episode, click here.)

Chain Store Age spoke with John about her undercover experience.

How did your appearance on the show come about?

In our case, the show had contacted us multiple times. I was never against it, but the timing just wasn’t right. We were in the early stages of a turnaround. You don’t want to put the focus on a publically traded company during that kind of time-frame.

What made you change your mind about doing the show?

We felt the timing was good. We have delivered three consecutive years of positive consolidated comp sales and continued profit expansion. There has been a significant improvement in a number of our key metrics, which has put our stock price in a comfortable place. Also, we are rolling out our new discovery store model and a number of new formats.

How important was the disguise?

One of the ways we keep our culture alive is by filming me for quarterly reviews and updates that we send out to the stores. Also, I’m out in the field quite a bit. So people know who I am. I’m not a behind-closed-doors CEO. I work in the stores. So the disguise was important.

Would you recommend other retail chief executives take a turn on “Undercover Boss”?

It’s obviously something that has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But I think the only reason someone might not want to do it has to do with the CEO mindset.

How does the ‘CEO’ mindset figure into going on "Undercover Boss"?

You have to be able to open yourself up to seeing things in a different light — meaning that you are still going to notice things, but you can’t react.

Going undercover can be a very insightful and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but you have to embrace the journey. And accept that you are not going to be in charge, and cannot correct issues in the moment, which is something that CEOs want to do. We are driven to be goal oriented. But you can’t have the answers on the spot when you go undercover.

Is there anything else to consider before going on the show?

You have to open your mind. You also need to be able to decompartmentalize your daily job and do it at night. Because that part of the job doesn’t go away.

What was the biggest surprise of your undercover experience?

My biggest surprise turned out to be very positive. I know Build-A-Bear touches the lives of millions of consumers in amazing ways — I get letters from people all the time. But I didn’t realize until I went undercover how much we touch the lives of our bear builders and other employees in life-changing ways that have real emotional impact.

I discovered working at Build-A-Bear is not just a job — at least not for the people I was privileged to work for. We are part of their family and they are part of ours.

Were there any disappointments?

Every time a seasoned retail CEO goes out in the field he or she sees things — nothing is every perfect. That’s just the way it is. More than disappointments, I would say there were some things I learned.

For example, one of our bear builders who specializes in training had created her own version of the training manual, which is what she took out to train me with. It wasn’t what I expected or desired, but I had be open minded and to go with it in the moment.

What was the outcome?

I learned that our training manual is very thorough and good, but using it to train seasonal or temporary hires takes too long. This particular associate had created a ‘Cliff Notes’ version of our training manual that gets temporary hires out onto the floor quick — and then she backs it up with more training. A very smart move.

What was your takeaway?

We are going to work with this associate and get her insights to create a ‘quick start’ version of our training program to help shorten the on-boarding process for seasonal and temporary help.

And I’m also going to circle back and see what kept her idea from coming back to me in the first place.

How did you like working in the distribution center?

I had worked in a warehouse before. But this time they put me in a harness and I went up in a cherry picker. I thought it was a blast.

Did you learn anything new in the DC?

We had already gone through a process of assessing warehouse efficiencies and had upgraded some of our systems. My experience confirmed to me the fact that we needed to make that investment.

How did you like being a bear builder in the store?

It’s a great job, which helps explain our amazing retention rates. You’re helping kids and kids at heart pick out a furry friend and you make people smile.

But while I’ve worked in our stores before, I hadn’t done a lot of the stuffing of the bears and other animals. It’s learned skill and not as easy as it looks. I had a few fluffing accidents, but no bear was seriously harmed during my training.
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