Carey Smith says the decade he spent running his first industrial cooling business with his father was “horrible.” The factories and warehouses where they installed equipment were sweltering. The heat inspired Smith, 60, to create Big Ass Fans, which designs and manufactures high-end fans up to 24 feet in diameter. One challenge he encountered along the way: luring engineers and other professionals to the company’s hometown of Lexington, Ky.
When you start a company, there are very few people anxious to work for you. And why would they be? You’re operating in some little office warehouse. You have to wait for the boss to open the door. You’ve got one bathroom. So you don’t get the best people; you don’t get the cream of the crop. There weren’t a lot of Stanford grads knocking on the door.
When we started growing rapidly around 2004, we needed to hire people from outside the area. It was obvious that to build a better product and establish marketing throughout the country, a good portion of our time was going to be spent recruiting and explaining why we were in Lexington, Ky.
We were making industrial fans but had potential customers who had environments that weren’t industrial, like schools, churches, and libraries. We had to develop a fan from scratch. We looked for design engineers. We also looked for marketing people who could write and think outside the box, and that’s hard to get anywhere.
Once we got to about 90 people in 2006, when we sold 5,000 to 6,000 fans, we also needed production engineers. We needed them to ensure our production line was really tight. Production is a science in and of itself. When you’re starting a business, you just don’t think like that. Now the line is computerized to ensure that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be—that every bolt is torqued properly. To make that happen, we really had to hire good production people.
As we grew, I realized that we had to market not just the product, we had to market the company. As an employee, you’re selling me your time and a piece of your life. I have to be able to compensate you for that. Money is not the only thing the kind of people we’re looking for want. I felt like we had to make more of a commitment to people.
So starting in 2007, we devised a stock appreciation rights program. Employees can cash out in situations like retirement, change of control of the company, or if they leave the company and they’re vested. The idea: show people they could have a piece of our growth. More recently, we’ve trumpeted the idea that we are building a 200-year company. These are ways to retain employees and induce people to pick up and move their family to Lexington. — As told to Nick Leiber