People - March 2005

His borders break boundaries in decor
By Chris Richter

John Ham is trying to relax. But he has been busy since his company, Huntersville-based Cultural Hangups Inc., hit the big time. In November, home-improvement giant Lowe’s began carrying two of its ethnic-themed wallpaper borders in 304 stores nationwide.

One border features a black ballerina against a pink background; the other, a group of girls of different races sitting together. Lowe’s plans to add other designs this year.

Ham, 38, is formally president of the company but calls himself chief operating officer. The concept was the idea of his wife, Cynthia, so he calls her president. He handles most business decisions, and she’s more involved with design.

They never intended to get into the decorating business. His wife was pregnant in 1997 when she decided to turn a room in their house into a nursery. They couldn’t find products with black-themed images.

Cynthia had an artist paint a border and mural featuring images such as black angels and African symbols. “People came by to see how the baby was doing. And, of course, women always want to see what the nursery looks like,” he says. He didn't give much weight to compliments — they weren't going to say the room was ugly, he adds. Then Cynthia saw a TV talk show in which another woman had a similar problem. That convinced her there might be a market. They had their first products by 2002 and sold through the Internet, trade shows, churches and about 200 small stores.

The Hams come up with concepts for the borders. Artists draw sketches, which are tested with focus groups before being sent to a manufacturer in Canada. The company has four full-time employees. Ham won’t reveal revenue but says the Lowe’s contract will be worth $3 million to $5 million over two years.

A Greensboro native, he earned a bachelor’s in business in 1989 from N.C. A&T State University. He and his wife started a temporary-staffing company in Greensboro in 1991 and sold it in 1997. He joined Dudley Products, a Kernersville-based hair-care and cosmetics company as a marketing manager. She worked as a recruiter for Wachovia in Winston-Salem. They moved to Huntersville in 2000 when she was transferred to Charlotte. He worked in Dudley Products’ Charlotte office, then got a marketing job with the American Red Cross. He began working full time on Cultural Hangups in late 2003.

Ham says the company hopes to start a line of bedding-and-bath accessories that would be sold under the brand name Cultural Accents. “We need to go more toward the things people need to have. Everybody’s got to have a comforter. Everybody’s got to have a sheet. Everybody’s got to have a towel.”