Ray Hawkins was waiting on a welding job to open up when he heard about a company called Big Ass Fans. The Lexington, Ky. based manufacturer needed someone to help drill and package airfoils for its massive industrial ceiling fans. Hawkins wasn’t eager for more assembly line work, but it was a way to earn a few bucks until the welding job came around. With a newborn son on the way, every dollar counted. He didn’t realize Big Ass Fans would be the path to his American dream story, and he had every reason to be skeptical. After years toiling away on various assembly lines, only the first half of the story had come true – he’d worked hard, but never gotten ahead.
Hawkins spent six years as a temp for a major international automaker. Spurred on by the promise of stable, permanent employment, he never logged an unexcused absence, and he always showed up on time despite a 30-mile commute. “I thought, ‘If I just stick it out, show up and do a good job, it’ll all work out,” he said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”
But when the company hit hard times, production slowed to a crawl and a hiring freeze was put in place. As his supervisor struggled to find work for him, shuffling him around to various production lines, he knew what was coming. “Every morning I would wake up and wonder, ‘Am I going to have a job today?’” he said. One day, a few months before his son was born, the company laid him off.
BIG ASS FANS
is one of the fastest growing companies in the nation, increasing more than four times in size in the last five years in both revenue and staff. The company has made headlines for its unconventional but effective business strategies. For example, Big Ass Fans spends nearly twice the industry average on research and development. During the Great Recession, when other companies were laying off workers, Big Ass Fans refused to lay off any employees and actually grew the business, opening the world’s only research-and-development laboratory for large-diameter fans and starting an installation division.
Hawkins realized Big Ass Fans was different from his previous job as the result of a simple conversation that occurred about a week after he was hired as a temporary employee during the peak summer season. Company founder and CEO Carey Smith, or Chief Big Ass as he prefers to be called, came to meet Hawkins and asked how he liked the job. “I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that. I had been at this other company for six years, and I only knew my direct supervisor. I never met a president or a vice president. I couldn’t tell you what their names were to this day,” he said.
Within a couple of weeks at Big Ass Fans, Hawkins was on a first-name basis with Smith and each of his supervisors. On the clock, he and his managers talked about strategy, production and efficiency. Off the clock, they talked about the University of Kentucky Wildcats, their families and favorite movies while shooting pool in the break area. “This was the first place I’d been where I wasn’t a number. People remembered me. They knew my name. They saw and acknowledged that I was doing a good job,” he said. “I started to get a sense like we were all one big family.”
A few weeks into his employment with Big Ass Fans, his temp agency called. That long-sought welding job, which paid a bit more because it required a professional certification, had opened up. “I said, ‘You know what? Give it to someone else. I’m good here.’” Hawkins accepted a full-time, permanent position shortly afterward. Most of Big Ass Fans’ temporary workforce is only temporary typically for three months with about 70 percent hired into permanent, full-time positions.
When his son was born, some troublesome, but treatable, health problems required a longer-than-usual hospital stay. Despite the goodwill he’d been shown, he was still nervous about asking for time off – taking time off at his previous job meant no pay and no guarantee that work would still be around when he was ready to come back. “I was still new, and I was worried about how it would look that I was going to need all this time off,” he said. “But when I asked about it, everyone was real concerned. They said ‘Man, take all the time you need.’”
Today, Hawkins is a supervisor for quality control for Big Ass Fans’ Haiku line of residential ceiling fans. Each fan is hand-balanced and tested in a state-of-the-art sound booth to guarantee it will never tick, rattle or wobble. Hawkins oversees the process, making sure every fan shipped to customers meets the strictest guidelines for quality and reliability.
Since he was hired, Big Ass Fans has opened a fourth and fifth facility in Lexington and added 40 employees specifically to handle the production of Haiku, which holds . The company has grown in technological ambition as well, bringing the first major innovations to residential ceiling fans in the last 100 years. The newest version of the fan, Haiku with SenseME, is the only ceiling fan made in America. It’s also one of just a few smart home products made here as well. SenseME monitors room conditions such as occupancy and temperature, adjusting Haiku’s speed to automatically maintain your ideal comfort level as the environment changes. When you switch speeds manually, SenseME remembers your preferences to make smarter, more personalized adjustments in the future. Making the fans in America is more expensive, but it allows the company to maintain better control of its processes and ensure quality.
For Big Ass Fans, American-made means more than just quality products – it means good paying jobs for hard-working people like Hawkins. Employees at Big Ass Fans are paid 20 percent more than the national average for similar work, and 40 percent more than the state average in Kentucky. “That’s part of the advantage of being a manufacturer – you employ a cross-section of the entire population,” said CEO Smith. “And when the company does well, everyone does well. It helps people from all walks of life.”
Perks – like an attendance bonus that pays up to $2,100 per year for manufacturing employees who show up on time every day – help create a motivated and responsive work force. Big Ass Fans also offers a Stock Appreciation Rights program to reward employees who help grow the company. “The program not only gives employees a sense of personal investment in the company and builds wealth, it also provides a stronger means of retention – which is a crucial element of a growing business,” Smith said.
Hawkins agrees that personal success at Big Ass Fans is brought on by more than just pay and perks. “When I see Haiku in the field or I see we got another award, I feel like I’ve personally accomplished something,” he said. “I know the ingenuity and the hard work that goes into it, and just about everyone who has a hand in it can tell you a story just like mine.”