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

March 17, 1993|BETTIJANE LEVINE | 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. . . ."

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