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People of the Year 2013 | Matthew Briggs

CEO, Four Hands Home

Fearless Leader—a South African’s quiet confidence and bold decision-making has helped this global company rise to the top of the troubled furniture industry.

Matthew Briggs isn’t your cliché CEO—he would choose jeans over a suit any day of the week, he prefers reading Malcolm Gladwell to Jack Welch, he runs an open financial books policy and during the economic downturn of 2007, he took an aggressive stance, buying up real estate and securing better designers and suppliers on the product side, resulting in significant growth for the international company. “At that time, I preached that the whole downturn would produce as much opportunity as it would obstacles,” he says. “I took the attitude of ‘I am not going to hunker down, try to survive, and wait around to die…let’s just go for it.’” And that he did—Briggs became the CEO in 2009 and since then, the company’s revenue is up over 250 percent.

“The biggest misconception is that people come in the store or attend a warehouse sale and assume that Four Hands is an Austin furniture store…but the reality is that we are an international, North American-based wholesale distributor,” he says. Behind a discreet door at the back of the Four Hands store location on Woodward is the company’s corporate headquarters, where over 100 people are working with retail clients like Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, Neiman Marcus, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm. The 12,000-square-foot Austin showroom may seem sprawling, but it isn’t the company’s largest—the High Point, North Carolina space is 36,000 square feet, and they also have showrooms in Las Vegas and Atlanta, as well as offices in China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam.

As the CEO of a global company, Briggs’ days start early or end late with international phone calls, and he is often on a plane. But he still finds time to oversee the product team and to lead the company’s “young, fun, casual, but very serious about the right things about work” culture. Employees enjoy perks like a generous profit-sharing program, health insurance and 401K, comp days, and lots of happy hours. They also have the option to buy any piece of furniture at cost, use it for as long as they like and trade it in for another one. “I think it’s just cowardice that other furniture companies don’t do it,” he says. “I don’t know how you can get your employees excited about your product if they never use it!”

Briggs is open with the company about the financial performance and company goals. He says, “I have always felt like being open about what we are trying to achieve gets you so much closer to the end goal, rather than being secretive.”

Briggs got started in furniture serendipitously because of his deep-seeded love of business, a knack he discovered he had at his first job in South Africa—bagging bottles at a liquor store for tips only. He grew up right in the middle of the Apartheid and by the time he was 17, he had never left the country. “Crazy stuff happens in the Third World…it doesn’t have the order that the U.S. has,” he says. “When you grow up on the southern tip of Africa, you know you are at the opposite end of the world. It was an amazing childhood, but we always felt excluded from so much.” The country didn’t have television until well in to his childhood, but he loved movies like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, which left him hungry for an adventure to America. At 17, he applied for a student exchange program. He spent a year in Central Illinois, and fell in love with Colorado on two visits during that year. He returned to South Africa for four years of University. Post-graduation, he signed up for an MBA program, but he felt the mountains calling him back, so he took a job as a photographer at a ski resort in Breckinridge, Colorado.

It was in Colorado at age 26 that he came into the furniture business—importing from Mexico. He became interested in Indian antiques, and met Brett Hatton, the founder of Four Hands. Briggs was a client of the company’s for four years, and when he grew tired of the mountain life, he sold his business and Hatton offered him a job. Before moving to Austin, in his first four years in the U.S., he went without ever buying anything larger than what he could fit in a suitcase, unsure whether he could warm up to the idea of living here forever. Today, the now-father of three couldn’t be happier with his wife, Sage, and their life in Austin.

The day of our interview, it was announced that Briggs led a management buyout of the company, making him its majority shareholder. So with this, I had to ask, what’s next? “Aggressive growth is in the DNA of this company,” he says. “When I hear people say, ‘my company is about as big as I want it to be.’ I say, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ Aggressive growth is always a part of our plan.” As I leave, the CEO has one request: “Please, leave the door open.”

Credits

Photography by Randal Ford

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