Beyond the busted windows and dusty floor, Nathan Ruffin saw the potential of his new 5,000 square-foot facility in downtown Winston-Salem, his hometown.
It’s there where he’ll grow his company HammerHead Design Build – a contracting firm that builds custom displays for businesses and products.
Ruffin’s story shows there’s no “normal” path to entrepreneurship – it’s a way of life. He graduated from High Point University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in performance theatre. From there, he lived and worked in New York City and Miami, traveling the nation to work in backstage theatre and film production.
Right around that time, Ruffin decided he wanted to start his own fabrication shop. As it turns out, the leap from performance theatre to construction wasn’t that far.
”I did study theatre at HPU; it was an excellent platform to start HammerHead,” Ruffin says. “All of the long hours in the theatre shop, nights, and weekends filled with working on the productions put me in an excellent position to understand what I needed to succeed. It’s not always about how hard you work, it’s about how smart you work! The theatre professors pushed that theory very well.”
In HPU’s theatre program, students pursue one of three areas of emphasis: performance, design/technical or collaborative theatre.
“Every theatre major works on every production,” says Ed Simpson, chair of the Department of Theatre. “Through this, they develop a variety of theatre skills which prepares them for the professional theatre, graduate programs and any other field which requires creativity, communication and personal discipline. Nathan’s career as a theatre and construction entrepreneur is just one example of the success of our mission.”
Ruffin founded HammerHead in 2014. Then, his “shop” was a few plastic sawhorses and some borrowed 2×4 studs. Today, his one-man-show has grown into a one-stop-shop: a full-service fabrication shop with other full-time employees. HammerHead offers a range of construction services for retailers, from unique product displays to complete store build-outs and more. He’s worked with local clients including furniture maker Caracole and packaging company WestRock, as well as clothing companies Ole Mason Jar in Charlotte, Ward&Whitney in Charleston and more.
Ruffin says running a successful business isn’t always easy. Making decisions no longer affect him only; it affects other people who work at HammerHead and rely on him to guide the company’s future. But while there is a learning curve to running his own business, Ruffin says there’s nothing else he would rather do.
“My favorite thing about owning HammerHead is watching the success of the company grow exponentially over a short period of time,” Ruffin says. “When I stared it was just me, then it grew to me and a buddy who came in for free. Then it grew into part-time helpers. Now it’s grown to 5,000 square feet, a new facility and full-time employees. All in less than 17 months! Being able to see the success of the company through hard work is a pretty awesome feeling.”
Amidst his company’s exponential growth, Ruffin credits his time at HPU in helping set him up for a successful, entrepreneurial future.
“HPU is a fantastic platform to jump from and head right for success,” Ruffin says. “In Dr. Qubein’s speech right before graduation, he told us, ‘The world owes you nothing; you must go must go out and earn your success.’ I think his message was really clear: It would be up to each graduate to create their path of success after college. Hearing about HPU continuing to grow only reinforces that fact.”