Maxine Clark took listening to a 10-year-old to a higher level when a search for stuffed animals with the daughter of a friend became a visionary drive that helped her launch Build-A-Bear Workshop, a now-$400 million brand that puts the fun back into the retailing experience.

Clark, who was named the 2006 M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant in late March, reinvented the concept of a child’s teddy bear. Eight years after Clark opened her first store at the St. Louis Galleria, more than 36 million customers — 80 percent of them children — have stuffed bears, frogs and dogs to their desired huggable firmness and dressed them in style as part of Build-A-Bear’s entertainment retail theme park.

The 30-year retailing veteran left corporate America in search, she says, of the excitement she used to feel as a little girl when she’d stare through shop windows with her family in Miami’s shopping district. Clark spent two decades in merchandising with May Department Stores before she became president of Payless ShoeSource in 1992.

In 1997, she and her friend’s daughter, Katie, were in search of the perfect Beanie Baby when they dreamed up the ultimate arts-and-crafts project that would allow kids to create and clothe their own plush animals, complete with birth certificates.

“Our concept challenges the creative mind and brings out the children in all of us,” Clark said. “I always say you can never have too many shoes or too many teddy bears. But above all, keep the kid in you alive — you always need that source of inspiration and perspective.”

With 200 international locations and growing, families are creating memories as they build their toys in malls, ballparks, zoos and in mobile locations wherever families gather.

Clark will be inducted into the U.S. Business Hall of Fame this year. 2006 will also see the release of her first book, “The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart.”

The M.B. Zale Visionary Merchant Award is named after the founder of Zale’s and sponsored by Mays’ 20-year-old Center for Retailing Studies and the M.B. and Edna Zale Foundation.