More than 70 years ago, John Ruggles Jr. opened a small neon sign shop in downtown Lexington. He learned the craft at a neon shop owned by his father, where he worked after leaving behind plans to become a lawyer.
Serving local businesses, Ruggles became a “full-service sign company,” including custom signs made from wood, aluminum and vinyl.
In the late 1970s, Ruggles Sign “lucked into” its first national account in Tennessee and built a sign for a jewelry store. Something went wrong with the lights in the sign right before the store’s grand opening, so Ruggles went down himself to fix the problem.
The jewelry business was so impressed with Ruggles’ commitment it gave Ruggles more and more business, and the sign company “snowballed from that,” said Ruggles’ granddaughter Anna Cambron, who now co-owns her grandfather’s company with her husband, Tim Cambron.
Ruggles Sign is now located in a 160,000-square-foot facility in Versailles, where signs are made daily for local, national and international companies. The family business creates custom signs for several household names including: Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, Nike and Kay Jewelers.
“We feel really blessed to be here,” CFO Anna Cambron said. “Yeah, it is kind of unusual for a company that’s making signs that ship out all over the country and world to be located in Versailles, but frankly our customers don’t care where we’re located, they just want a quality sign.”
Cambron and her husband, Ruggles co-owner and president Tim Cambron, said neither of them had plans to work at Ruggles permanently when they started at the company.
Anna Cambron began working as a secretary for her grandfather in 1985 while studying finance at the University of Kentucky. Her high school sweetheart, Tim Cambron, began working at Ruggles shortly after as he was exploring career options; at the time, he wanted to be a physical education teacher and had aspirations to become a police officer.
However, both worked their way up in the business and eventually bought Ruggles Sign from Cambron’s grandfather in 2000.
“You have to wonder if there’s going to be any friction or not, but we’ve worked it out very well,” Elizabeth Pitchford, another granddaughter who oversees national sales and marketing, said. “It’s been a smooth transition from family into business.”
The company moved into its new facility about three years ago, Pitchford said. It was designed to enhance the work flow, moving from reception to administration, from project planning to design and implementation.
In the facility’s digital print room recently, a few of the company’s 105 employees work together to create a marble-like pattern on signs to compliment the La Senza building. La Senza, a fashion and lingerie retailer owned by L Brands, has locations mainly in Canada and the United Kingdom.
A woman sat in front of a computer screen staring at what looked like a jumble of letters on a word document; she’s fitting the shapes within the frame to optimize the number of signs that can be made from each sheet of material. When she’s finished, she’ll send the files to a machine in the next room to tell it how to cut the letters.
The door at the end of the digital print room leads into a large warehouse. Employees are spaced out, each focused on his or her task. As one employee sands down a Nike Swoosh he recently finished welding, another cuts pieces from aluminum sheets, which will later be shaped into three-dimensional letters to spell out “Pink” in the lingerie company’s familiar bold type.
Two state-of-the-art paint rooms line the north wall of the building across from a workstation where staff add lighting to nearly complete signs. In a separate room closed off from the noisy machinery, two men work near the center of the warehouse, bending glass tubes to create neon signs.
“Everything we do is custom,” Pitchford said. “We don’t have a big machine that just cranks out the same sign over and over again.”
This allows the company flexibility to accommodate customers’ needs from one location to the next, Pitchford explained. A Victoria’s Secret sign at the mall might not be the same as what’s needed at another shopping center.
Both owners agree quality of customer service is what sets them apart from other companies.
Michelle Oxley, president and CEO of Citizens Commerce National Bank, a Ruggles client of 20 years, said Ruggles has completed various projects for the bank over the years including custom lettering and helping redesign the logo.
One of the reasons the bank, which is based in Woodford County, chose to work with Ruggles was because it is also a local business, with a reputation for quality customer service, Oxley said.
“They provide fabulous customer service with a quick response time,” she said.
Just the other week, Ruggles employees worked in the rain to make sure a sign was installed on time, Oxley said.
Tim Cambron said the best part of the entire process working with clients is showing them the finished product.
“It’s a lot of hard work and dedication” that makes Ruggles successful, he said.
Anna Cambron said her grandfather came almost every day to check on the company even after selling it until he passed away in 2001.
“I don’t think he ever imagined it would grow to the capacity that we actually handle now,” Pitchford said. “We know he would be really proud of what’s being done.”
Emma Austin: 859-231-1455