Hands of the Hills

Beloved bead business lives on.

Ramsey Finger and Melita Mullen purchased the assets of Hands of the Hills, a wholesaler of amulets, beads and jewelry, with a nationwide presence in the niche bead market, in 2023. They worked with the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW – Madison (SBDC) on business planning and financial projections as they prepared to acquire the business.

Finger has been in the bead business since he was 18 years old. At age 22, he opened a retail store in Madison, which he ran for 15 years. That longtime immersion in the business meant he had established relationships in the industry, including with the owner of Hands of the Hills, whom Finger had known since the mid-1990s.

“Steve was one of my suppliers, and when I closed my retail store, I worked for Hands of the Hills for about 10 years,” Finger explains. “We have a longstanding relationship.”

Finger and his wife Melita Mullen had opened Modern Talisman, a small retail store selling jewelry and imported items, in 2018, but it closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they were looking for another venture. Fortunately, their strong friendship with the owner of Hands of the Hills, and his highly organized recordkeeping during his 30 years in business, made an asset acquisition fairly seamless, particularly with the help of the SBDC.

Ramsey and Melita at the newly rented warehouse shortly before filling it with beads.

Mullen attended the Arts Administration program at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison from 1999-2001 and did a project with the SBDC, in which she learned about the organization’s services, like classes and consulting.

“It’s been on my radar for 20 years,” Mullen says. “When the opportunity to purchase Hands of the Hills’ assets came around, we knew we needed extended funding, so we reached out to the SBDC in October 2022, and Michelle Somes-Booher, the SBDC director, contacted us.”

They worked directly with Somes-Booher, who met with them, reviewed multiple drafts of their business plan, and deemed them ready to work on financial projections. In December 2022, they began working with business consultant Anne Inman and business student Jackson Damkot.

“We were ready to get into the financial projections and understand what we needed to know from the former owner and what we needed to learn to convince a bank to lend us money,” says Mullen.

“We really started digging into the financial projection part of it,” says Finger. “Despite having businesses, I had never done anything this formal. You think you know what you’re trying to do, and you realize there’s more to it, and you have to burrow into the numbers.”

Inman asked specific questions, like, “What percentage of your costs of goods is shipping costs?”, and Finger and Mullen had to get those numbers.

“We had a meeting with Anne where we worked things out on a whiteboard,” Mullen says. Anne was there with a marker, and we drilled down on the numbers. We couldn’t fake it.”

They developed an understanding of their income streams, like trade shows, phone orders, and online orders and what percentage of the business each would be.

“It really helped us narrow down what we wanted to do, and it shaped how we approached the owner in terms of what we needed from him,” says Finger. “We could ask Steve very specific questions that we could get answers to.”

They began emailing banks on New Year’s Day, 2023.

“That week was our most intense flurry of activity,” recalls Mullen. “There was a large trade show at the end of January and early February that Ramsey was doing with Steve, and we  needed answers by then.”

Somes-Booher recommended several banks for funding.

“We contacted three banks, and two offered to work with us, and the third sent us on to a different organization, who was also willing to work with us,” says Finger. “The SBDC got us in the door.”

Mullen and Finger felt fully prepared for their loan interviews with banks.

“Nobody asked anything we hadn’t already worked through on some level,” Finger says. “We were so prepared; we could answer all their questions and feel very confident. It was huge.”

“Now, we’re trying to keep the brand loyalty for Hands of the Hills, while keeping open the possibility of engaging in other activities under the Modern Talisman name, maybe more retail or its own website,” says Mullen.

Ramsey in December in Thailand
meeting with beadmakers.

Now, the company’s focus is day-to-day operations and learning the best way to work with their customers–primarily people who have bought from Hands of the Hills in the past. Hands of the Hills is a wholesale business only, without a retail component, so it’s a niche business. Their main customers include jewelry designers who sell on Etsy or at art shows; jewelry manufacturers who produce lines for Macy’s and Sundance; large online bead sellers; and local bead stores.

“We knew our first year project was to keep people happy and let them know about the acquisition,” says Finger. “Our product is tactile, and people need to have an idea of what they’re ordering, so trade shows are great for getting products in front of people and meeting them. We also want to make things easier to order and reorder online.”

Finger is looking forward to what’s next for Hands of the Hills.

“This is what I’ve been doing since I was 18, and it still motivates me,” says Finger, who travels to Thailand a few times a year to import products. “I want to keep offering these unique handmade things to people who will appreciate them.”

“The travel and cultural aspects are the parts that I love most,” he adds. “We’ve realized over time that it’s always been about the stories and continues to be. That’s a selling point and part of the joy of it all.”

Mullen, who is also a practicing attorney, worked in the arts before law school and appreciates staying connected to the arts. She says she is grateful to the SBDC for their support.

“Knowing that I was working with people I could trust and ask questions without feeling stupid, having support all the way through, and knowing our numbers would be very solid, was the most helpful thing about working with the SBDC,” says Mullen.

“The SBDC is such a great resource,” she adds. “They worked with us in such an efficient way that we were propelled in the right direction very quickly. That saved us time and money.”