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False the Austin warehouse and showrooms in North Carolina, Atlanta, and Las Vegas. “ When we exhibit at industry trade shows, we find that the major customers we sell to— which include many of the top 100 furniture retailers in the country— tend to be on our doorstep the first day we open, to see what we’re doing, since we bring the latest trends from overseas. International buyers also come to the US trade shows from Australia, Scandinavia, the UK, and Europe.” Why is this tribal or “ ethnic chic” furniture ( and accessories) so popular in the US? Briggs says the way people buy furniture has changed since the previous generation. “ When our parents purchased a dining room set, for example, it lasted them for life, whereas the current generation doesn’t have that permanent relationship with furniture. People today tend to change their home furnishings every five to ten years. A trend we’re seeing is that our core customer group— the cultural, creative people who are worldly, sophisticated, and shop at retailers that we sell to— is looking away from traditional furnishings and toward unique pieces with an international style and flavor, and their home is never really completely decorated. They love shopping for new pieces, and they’re always finding something to add to their home, to replace older pieces, to keep evolving their décor.” Four Hands in effect has westernized the look of Eastern furniture styles and designs for its American customers. Subtle nuances can make a difference between pieces working or not, from the color or finish, to the size of an item, maybe the height or width. “ One of our skills as buyers and developers of product,” says Briggs, “ is being able to look at a piece and assess its elements, then put it into a format that works in the US market.” Overseas, Four Hands has several small teams looking for new sources of product, and bringing on a new vendor is like project management, says Briggs. Although the company doesn’t engage in formal partnerships, it often funds growth that enables a local enterprise in a small factory to increase production. “ For example, if we find an artisan or craftsman who typically makes 40 pieces per month, we might loan him $ 50,000 to $ 75,000 interest free to buy additional machinery or hire extra help May 08 www. bus- ex. com 123 In the late l980s Brett Hatton met his wife- to-be, Molly Stott, when they were both attending the University of Texas at Austin. For a year the two traveled throughout Asia, intrigued by the various kinds of handmade “ tribal” furniture that reflected local cultures. They opened a retail shop in Hatton’s native Essex, England, in 1992, importing some of the pieces of home furnishings they had come across in their travels. They soon discovered that they weren’t really cut out to be retailers; they would rather travel and find sources for furniture. But first they needed a base of operation in the US market, so they returned to Austin in 1995 to set up a wholesale business. Their experience in retail taught them the importance of quality control, of having product arrive undamaged and on time. They called their company Four Hands because initially every piece they imported was handled in some respect by both of them, from unpacking it to ensuring that it functioned properly and reflected their commitment to quality. In 1996 they sold their first pieces at a trade show in Dallas, mostly to upscale retailers. Today, Four Hands’ clients include Crate and Barrel, Z Gallerie, Gabberts, C. S. Wo & Sons, ABC Carpet & Home, Sundance Catalog, and Gump’s By Mail. The company imports from about ten countries, mostly in Asia and the Far East; it has offices in India, China, and Thailand, where CEO Hatton spends most of his time. An office in Bangkok oversees international operations of sourcing, quality control, and order placement. “ We focus on the lifestyle segment of the home furnishings industry, best exemplified by companies like Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn. Their customers don’t go in to buy specific furniture brands, since most of the products aren’t branded; the retailer is the brand. This has allowed us to get to a position where we tagline ‘ leading importer of lifestyle home furnishings,’” says president and COO Matthew Briggs, who oversees Four Hands’ US operations, including FourHands “ You can have the greatest merchandise in the world, but if it’s overpriced, or arrives damaged, or doesn’t arrive at the right time, you’re not a solution for a retailer”

False and India. There’s twig furniture intricately woven from tree scraps and lighting with all-natural elements like seashells or wood bark or twigs. Woods like mango and acacia are favored, since they’re only harvested when fully mature. And fi nishes are going from oil- based to water-based. Four Hands is also a founding member of the Sustainable Furniture Council, a nonprofi t group formed to promote sustainable practices in the home furnishings industry. In terms of challenges, Briggs says the most signifi cant change he’s currently seeing is an increased effort required in order to get paid. “ Money has tightened, and people are stretching their terms. We’re living in uncertain times right now. I think we’re just seeing the tip of it, and we are waiting to see how people react. The furniture industry is directly affected by the housing situation in the US.” so that he can comfortably make 150 pieces per month while maintaining quality. He can then pay us back $ 1,000 per container of goods, perhaps over the next three years. We’ve invested money, time, and effort into developing an effi cient, cost-effective supply chain with quality, realizing that you can have the greatest merchandise in the world, but if it’s overpriced, or arrives damaged, or doesn’t arrive at the right time, you’re not a solution for a retailer. And since retailers can go overseas themselves for products, we’ve made it easier for them to come to us.” Four Hands was environmentally conscious long before it was in vogue. Hatton says that being eco- friendly wasn’t a choice for him but rather a natural instinct. He found recycled elm being used in China, aluminum from cans being recycled in India, recycled teak from old fl oorboards, factories, and ships in Indonesia FourHands 124 www. bus- ex. com May 08