18 November 2010

four hands for a purpose

Encouraged by its market share of my personal collection, I thought i'd write about Austin-based Four Hands, a great business grounded by a higher purpose. Inspired by their travels in India and Pakistan, Brett Hatton and his wife founded the stylistic furniture concern in 1996 with the notion of importing eastern designs to the west while maintaining each piece's unique history by touching each one with their "four hands". They either manufacture, finish, or hand pick all of the furniture that they sell. They visit with specific artisans that craft the items all over the world, built manufacturing sites in India and elsewhere, and have paid great attention to supporting the communities that they affect in a positive way.

By any definition, Four Hands has been a commercial success. I estimate their sales are approaching $100M given what i've read (although its hard to say since they are private) and they seem to have a deployed a sound strategy of distribution deals and acquisitions to fuel their growth. Just over the past several months, they announced two acquisitions (a lighting designer and a specialty distributor of Hondurian artisan crafted items) and a partnership with an eco-friendly furntiture designer. They started by selling pieces to the likes of Neiman and Crate & Barrell, but hit the trade shows in a very big way to diversify its customer base and add to its chicqeness. Whats more amazing is that for such a highly complex, capital-intensive business, it does not appear they've incurred any debt or equity offerings. I'm sure it will be difficult to keep their uniqueness while continuing to expand so rapidly.

What's more compelling is that English-born Hatton has taken it upon himself to better the areas, particularly India, where most of Four Hands' pieces originate. In addition to the international charities the company supports such as UNICEF, Hatton has co-founded Miracle Foundation, a non-profit that builds and supports children orphanages, and Learn to Live, which educates young women in India. They also try to cut out middlemen importers by going straight to artisans and the source of their products (although not sure how scalable this is as they continue to grow). Four Hands also been listed in Business Week's listings of top companies that promote job growth in inner city communities (South Austin). I think this attention to a somewhat loftier goal has propelled the company through its profitable first 15 years. Close attention to the details, including the environment in which you operate, I feel is a recipe for great success in business.

I like to see good companies with innovative offerings, solid business strategy, and a 'good heart' enjoy growth and success. Its sort of the win win that helps fill unmet consumer demand while enhancing society overall. So I raise my (two) hands in approval for the company that has taken prominence in my living room.

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