When Todd Ham began working for the parents of his brother-in-law as a 17-year-old high school student, the signs were everywhere. Not just the signs that the company, Campbell Signs of Mount Vernon, were preparing for customers, but the signs that a career was calling.
More than three decades later, Ham is still seeing the signs, only now they are being prepared by his company for installation all across Southern Illinois.
“I’d been working for Cliff Campbell for a year and I was getting ready to go to the University of Missouri when he became ill with cancer," Ham said. "He passed away a few months later. I told his widow that I would stick around another year just to help her out. I worked with her for a few years and next thing I knew I owned a business.”
Ham, who lives on his family farm near Opdyke, east of Rend Lake, never did get to college. Instead, he got an education in signs and entrepreneurship.
“I never planned on being there and I didn’t have a clue that I would end up in the sign business,” he said, grinning. “It was exciting and a little scary, too. I never dreamed that it would turn out like it is today.”
Eventually he renamed the company Campbell and Ham Signs and then eventually, T. Ham Sign Company. The business has grown, too.
“At first it was just me a an employee, but the business slowly grew to where there are 17 of us now,” he said.
Five years ago, the company expanded by purchasing Weatherford Signs in Carbondale and by establishing a Marion location. He says the company focuses on Southern Illinois, but has installed signs as far away as Bloomington-Normal and Indianapolis. Through it all, Ham says he has seen a lot of changes.
“There’s a lot more technology today; we don’t hand paint signs anymore. Instead of hand skectches, we use computerized drawings. Technology has really changed the sign business,” he said.
The company offers digital signage message boards as well as vinyl wraps for cars or trucks.
“There’s always a different challenge every day,” he said. “There’s no two signs alike and we meet a lot of different people.”
But Ham says the thing he likes best is the sense of pride that comes with his work.
“When I drive around Southern Illinois, I try to tell my family, ‘Hey, we did that,’ and “We did that sign, too.’ It’s nice to see your work out there. It’s a good feeling; a feeling of accomplishment, especially when you see a large sign like at SIU. It makes me proud that our company did that,” he said.
Ham adds that he thinks there are continued opportunities for growth in Southern Illinois.
“I’d like to think that we’ll continue to grow, offer new technologies and have more employees. There’s a lot of work in Southern Illinois,” he said.
And, he adds, he’s really enjoyed being in a business that he never expected to be part of.
“I didn’t find this career; it found me,” he said.