Forever Chipper : Despite Financial Woes, Mrs. Fields Denies Her Empire Is Crumbling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Burdened by heavy debt and hobbled by recession-related sales declines . . . Mrs. Fields Cookies agreed to give its lenders nearly 80% of the company . . . .

--Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17

Burdened? Hobbled? Decline?

The mere whisper of such words sends Debbi Fields into gooey verbal spasm. After all, cookies are her life. (And that's a quote.) And the very inference that her empire might be crumbling is proof to her that the media is, well . . . half-baked.

In fact, a few days after reading the article quoted above, Fields set the record straight with an announcement of her own:

Mrs. Fields Inc. . . . has "finalize(d) recapitalization which will fuel the company's growth in the 1990s. Concomitantly, the company announced plans for 100 new stores this year.

All right, truce.

Our purpose here is to find out if Mrs. Fields' feel-good cookies were an '80s flash in the pan, victims of the economic crunch that were too rich (at three buttery inches in diameter and about 95 cents each) for the average consumers' blood. Or if Mrs. Fields herself--a kind of entrepreneurial icon of the '80s, who started baking at 13 and hasn't stopped--has second thoughts about life in the fast-cookie lane. A life, thus far, devoted to dough.

"Are you ready for Debbi?" chirps an aide by phone from Park City, Utah, headquarters of Fields' $100 million-plus firm.

Before you can answer, an even perkier voice signs on: "Well, hi there. . . ."

It's down-home Debbi, 36, mother of five girls (ages 1 1/2 to 13), and chairman of the board of Mrs. Fields Inc., which operates 780 stores, 380 of which are franchised.

She is happy to discuss her life and times, she says. But first, she'd like to set the record straight:

Her chocolate chip cookie is still No. 1 in the U.S.A. And her firm's sales (of 27 baked products plus a new test-market yogurt) are better than ever. She is not distancing herself from the company she started at age 20, as some reports have stated.

"I direct the whole show. I'm here to stay. I love what I do. Cookies are my life. I would not give this up for any amount of money; in fact, huge companies have offered to buy Mrs. Fields, but there's no way. It's just that we started so young and made a few real estate mistakes along the way. But we've learned from them. We will get bigger and better from here."

Fields' tale is legend in certain segments of the business world, where it's told as proof that almost anyone with a good idea in America can start from scratch and build a fortune.

But her saga is also proof that even the best business idea, with the best product and constant sales increases, can flounder under naive management and a desire to get too big too fast.

Since the late '80s, Mrs. Fields Inc. has been in and out of red ink.

As far back as 1989, for example, the Wall Street Journal quoted analysts that the firm had spread itself too thin, moving into European markets without appropriate management structure to oversee the expansion.

Even today, Mrs. Fields' arch competitor, Michael Coles, founder and chairman of the board of The Great American Cookie Co., doesn't put down his rival's cookies.

"They're just fine," he says. "In fact, one of the reasons we became so successful is that we had to keep up with her." But now, in some ways, he believes he's surpassing her.

"Our company is growing steadily," he says. "We haven't lost money a single year. We've just had the biggest Valentine's Day in our company's history. I think her problem is that she's more concerned with puff and tinsel than she is with running the business in a financially sound way." Other critics carp about Fields' "obsession with quality" and her reluctance to franchise in the early years because she wanted to maintain complete quality control over all her stores.

But Fields, forever chipper, says, "We've learned from our mistakes."

Fields' case is classic in many ways. As the youngest of five girls born to a welder and a housewife in Oakland, she grew up thinking she was not particularly smart or pretty. But she loved to bake cookies and she loved to work, both of which she did after school to supplement her minuscule allowance.

At 18, she was at a Denver airport phone on her way home from a ski trip when economist Randy Fields, 28, spotted her. After showing ID (he had been mentioned in Time and Newsweek magazines, which were in his briefcase), he wangled her home phone number. The hotshot economist and the high school graduate were married less than a year later.

But (soaring music here) with love came trouble.

Mr. Fields was entertained in some of the richest homes, by some of the best and the brightest. Mrs. Fields tagged along, with what seemed like very little to contribute to the erudite chatter. No college education, no special areas of expertise, no confidence in herself.

As she later told a reporter, she was considered "a blond nothing of a wife. . . ."

The coup de grace came in 1977 in New Jersey, she recalled, at the home of arbitrager Sandy Lewis, who had overseen the American Express acquisition of Shearson Loeb Rhoades. First, Lewis plied her with questions she found difficult to answer. Then he asked what she intended to do with her life.

Unnerved, she blurted out: "Well, I'm mostly trying to get orientated."

That ripped it. Lewis grabbed a dictionary from his imposing bookshelves and tossed it in her lap, explaining that there is no such word as orientated. "It's oriented."

Debbi was destroyed. She cried for hours afterward. Then, like Rocky, she turned to granite. Determined to win. To work her way out of her husband's shadow with the chocolate chip cookie recipe she'd been perfecting since she was 13.

She'd sell them from a cookie shop, she decided, although no one had done that before. And her husband, to his credit, thought it was a great idea. He helped her borrow $50,000 from his friendly banker, and the legend grew from there.

Today, Debbi Fields may be older and wiser, but she's not a whit less enthusiastic, from the sound of things. First, she ticks off the "mistakes," none of which had to do with anything edible.

"It had to do with adding stores where there were no customers," she says in a stroke of candor. "We made a few poor real estate selections starting in 1986. They were company owned stores, where we paid for rent and improvements, which meant we had a lot of debt but no customers to give us profit. In retrospect, we took the opinion of (real estate) scouts who weren't correct.

"Now we know better," she says. "We study the demographics charts of any location, and we also send someone we trust to stand out in front and literally count the people. We blend science with the old-fashioned way."

In addition, she says, "mall traffic, in some areas, has been on the decline. Beverly Center and Glendale Galleria are terrific for us. But we used to be in Anaheim Plaza, where we were one of the few remaining stores. A small cookie store can't make money when it's the anchor of the mall."

But Fields isn't about money or real estate. You can tell, even on the phone, that her heart's not in that kind of thing.

She's a people person (her cookie sellers are called "team members") and a product person ("you live and die by quality"), given to aphorisms like "good enough never is" and "Mr. Thumb lives in every store."

Mr. Thumb?

"Yes, every Mrs. Fields cookie has to be fresh, warm, soft and chewy or we do not want it sold. When a team member lifts a cookie before selling it, the person must depress the bottom of the cookie with the thumb--we call it Mr. Thumb--to make sure it is absolutely soft."

The gospel according to Mrs. Fields is that no cookie may be sold after it is two hours old. "That's where our cookie orphans come in. We have to find homes for any cookies older than two hours, and so we send them off to charities."

"It's lack of perfection that drives me crazy," Fields says. "The disappointment and frustration are indescribable when I find my cookie standards aren't being met. Perfection in a cookie is definable."

Yes, but does her yen for perfection extend to the lives of her five girls?

"I set no such standards for my children. I was such an average student all my life that I keep telling them to realize how fortunate they are because they have such good minds. I tell them the key is not getting the A. . . . It's giving your all. I don't care about their grades, as long as they can say 'Mom, I did the best i was able to do.' "

Fields says her own personal goal, by the time she's 50, is "to be known for having absolutely the best, highest quality products. I want Mrs. Fields to stand for happiness."

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