A teddy bear, as any child will tell you, isn’t just a birthday or Christmas present. It’s a best friend for life. And no one knows that better than Paul Marks, the general manager of Build-A-Bear Workshop Gulf.
“It’s the first time that we form an emotional attachment, and that attachment can get you through a stormy night as a child, give comfort when a relationship ends as an adult or just evoke fond memories,” he says.
“So we’re not just in the business of selling bears. As an experience we say that we sell love, hugs and smiles.”
That’s why Paul’s greatest pleasure is watching the sheer joy on children’s faces when they’ve created their new friend for life in the Build-A-Bear Workshop at The Dubai Mall, Marina Mall or at Festival City in Dubai.
Working with people is what truly inspires Paul. In a career spanning 33 years, he has worked in diverse jobs – from being the Food Department Manager of Marks & Spencer in the UK to managing a furniture store and setting up and branding duty free stores in Mauritius, Nepal and the Maldives.
“But through it all, it’s always people and relationships that matter most to me,’’ says the 53-year-old.
“I love connecting with people. I am also curious about cultures and feel empowered by the social connections that we make in our everyday lives.”
The Dubai denizen tells Friday why he works hard at building good business practices:
People are my passion. You simply can’t be successful or enjoy the business of Build-A-Bear if you don’t love meeting people, especially the diverse cultures that you find in this city. It’s the main reason that I fell in love with Dubai when
I arrived here in 1994 as director of operations of Toys R Us Middle East.
I’ve been lucky enough to have worn many retail hats, which have all taught me something. My first job as a department manager at Marks and Spencer in the UK in 1980 gave me great grounding in retail and life.
I began in Rochdale, a small industrial town in the north of the UK. I was the only male trainee at the time and I was spoilt by the older women who had been working at the store for decades. But I soon found that I was a bit of a round peg in a square hole.
I remember trying to persuade one of the older managers that we could display and sell sweatshirts – which were new and popular at the time – and jeans together to make a multiple sale, but he would have none of it.
“Jeans are trousers and these sweatshirts are jumpers so they have to stay in their proper sections,” he told me.
Keen to take on new challenges, I joined a furniture company called Brown Bear. After spending three years there, I joined Toys R Us.
I was lucky to be one of 14 people out of 8,000 applicants to be selected.
There I met a guy named Adam Szopinski who had a great influence on my life. A promising Polish ice hockey player, he’d had to give up the game following an injury.
He started off as a part-time warehouse boy at Toys R Us and eventually became vice-president of international operations. His favourite line was, “People rarely believe anything they hear; only half of what they read, and everything that they see with their own eyes”. It was a lesson on how important visual merchandising is.
My first big career break was when I was offered the job of operations director to open Toys R Us in Spain. Here I met another very influential person in my life: Guillermo Porratti. He was a larger than life character who taught me to always tell it as it is and to never trick people. Between Adam and Guillermo I learnt
a great deal.
After nearly ten years in Spain I was made director of operations Toys R Us Middle East. I had never heard of it at the time, but my sister and brother-in-law lived in Qatar and when I mentioned that I might have an opportunity to work in Dubai they said, “Go”. So I accepted the job without even having visited. I helped develop new 20,000-square-foot concept stores and the business grew well.
I’ll never forget my first night in Dubai. A colleague and I were staying at the Intercontinental Hotel. We took a late night stroll along the Creek and I was amazed to see the different nationalities of people busily going about their business.
I was also touched by the good nature of the greetings we received from strangers. Looking back, I’m sure that it was then that I fell in love with the city.
In 1999, I left Toys R Us and moved to Mauritius joining Currimjee Jeewanjee & Co, one of the most established companies on the island and one of the nicest family-run businesses that I’ve ever come across. They uphold many of the values that I try to aspire to – honesty and integrity, openness and generosity.
There I worked on a shopping centre and airport city project, among other things. My wife Sara, who I met and married in Mauritius, had spent some time in Dubai and was keen to return to the UAE. So in 2011 when I was offered the opportunity to come back as general manager of retail development and operations for Build-A-Bear in Dubai, I accepted.
At the Build-a Bear Workshop children choose and stuff their bear, they give it a personality, a heart and a name. The teddy will get a personalised birth certificate that links the child to our interactive play website called Bearville, which now has over 20 million active users who interact in a virtual bear world. Our head office in Missouri, US, is known as BQ, Bear Quarters.
The success of the brand revolves around the fact that children have a great propensity for love. In this age of iPads, smartphones, video games and reality shows it still shines through. People often tell me that they think teddy bears will not be relevant in the future. But my response is simple – you can’t hug an iPad.
We don’t just sell bears and other furry friends. We sell a real family experience. A bear is one of the few things that often remains with us all our lives. My sister who just turned 50, still has hers from when she was a child.
Giving back to the community has always been very important at Build-A-Bear. Over $30 million (Dh110 million) has been raised for children’s and animal-related charities around the world, and here in Dubai we’ve recently begun a relationship with Dubai Autism Centre (DAC).
We even have our own DAC bear here. In fact, Build-A-Bear recently handed over a donation of Dh20,000 to the Dubai Autism Centre as part of its social responsibility programme. We are always looking to create similar relationships everywhere that we have stores.
People and relationships have always been hugely important in my life. I firmly believe that businesses flourish with relationships. At a conference I attended, one of the speakers put it well when he said, “It’s not about B2B or B2C, it’s about B2P – business to people”.
I grew up in Malta. My dad, Daniel, is Maltese and was stationed there when he was in the Royal Navy. My mum, Margaret, is from Liverpool and was an excellent singer. Some of my happiest memories of my years in Malta were of weekends spent by the sea. We would take an old post-auxiliary boat out, sometimes in rough weather, for day-long picnics. I also remember having barbecues on the beach.
I think that explains my love for the sea and watersports. I still kitesurf at Kite Beach.
I get my practical side from Dad, who was an Engineering Officer, and my artistic side from my mum – not that I could ever match her talent. She brought us up while Dad was at sea for up to 18 months at a time.
My mum and dad instilled in us values that matter most in my personal and business life – honesty, loyalty and caring about other people.
I have two daughters. Katie, 22, works for an advertising agency in London, and Rachel, 19, studies geography at university in Newcastle. My sister Ruth, who lives close to my parents, has three children and my brother Simon, who lives in Australia, has two children. Despite the distance between us we are a very close family and try to get together as often as possible.
A couple of people in Dubai who I’ve always admired are Colm and Breda McLoughlin.
Colm is responsible for putting Dubai Duty Free on the world map. But above all they are both B2P people. They epitomise what’s great about expat life by giving something tangible back to the country and the community that they’ve made their home.
My dream is to one day be able to do something significant for Dubai. To live here for many years and not give something back would be a shame and a failure on my part. For the moment, though, I’ll continue doing all the things as I like as best I can.
I am a man always on the go and am constantly thinking of new ideas and concepts.
I try to stay fit, not out of vanity, but to live as long as I can and to cram as much into life as I possibly can.
Two of my favourite sayings are, ‘You must always have a plan B, even if you don’t have a plan A’, and ‘If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else’. I think I know where I’m going and I hope I end up there.