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Manufacturer Big Ass Fans Dares to Innovate—and Wins Big

January 10, 2020


This is a story about extraordinary innovation. About how a small commercial manufacturing company in Lexington, Kentucky transformed into an international industry leader by making daring decisions. When they adopted their provocative name, it was a spark that ignited a fire. Innovation followed by growth, followed by more innovation. Now, they use data driven manufacturing as a standard way to operate. See how Big Ass Fans transformed manufacturing fans into high-tech solutions for customers.

Well, It’s What Customers Asked For

In 2000, the company operated under the less remarkable name HVLS Fan Company. “After fielding phone calls for years from customers asking if we’re the ones that sold ‘big ass fans,’ we decided to rename the company,” explains Director of IT, Chad Hurley. “It just took off like a rocket.”

Along with the attention-grabbing name, the company logo features the rear end of a donkey. It’s a daring and playful mascot that promotes a big brand name. When they first created promotion trinkets, namely a foam donkey, office mayhem ensued. Hurley explains, “In the early days, we spent most of our time engaged in foam donkey wars.” Laughing, he adds, “The sales floor often looked like a cloud of flying foam donkeys.”

Rapid Growth

Fans and foam donkeys aside, Big Ass Fans is growing at a rapid clip. “In 2019, things vastly accelerated and will continue to accelerate,” says Hurley. Since they were founded 20 years ago, sales and warehousing operations have expanded to Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Big Ass Fans also earned 11 consecutive rankings on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies. Revenue is increasing on average at 39% annually. Yet another impressive achievement is their customer list. It includes more than 70% of Fortune 500® companies.

The “Amazon® Effect”

Now recognized as an industry leader and innovator, they’re well-positioned at the forefront of technology in a connected and big data world. “We live in an Amazon world, so people have bigger expectations now,” Hurley says. “The process of delivering, fulfilling, and getting our products to customers has all sped up.”

Amazon and other innovative companies set the expectation that products should evolve, improve, and get smarter over time—even those as seemingly simple as ceiling fans. Consumer demand also drives increasingly advanced products that are energy efficient and sustainable.

The more Big Ass Fans works to meet heightened demands, the more consumers ultimately demand, Hurley says. “We have a real techie following for our products,” he explains. “They're the most technologically advanced consumer ceiling fans on the market, so our customers expect us to be on the leading edge of technology.”

Being, and Staying, a Leader with Constant Innovation

Hurley requires employees to constantly return to the drawing board, sometimes pushing them to improve on products and services that work exactly as they're supposed to. He believes it’s how the company will stay competitive.

We always go back and say, ‘Okay, nothing is sacred here, how can we do it better?

“With the ever-present challenge of being a leader, we always ask for more from our technology and systems—to never assume we know how something works,” he says. “We always go back and say, ‘Okay, nothing is sacred here, how can we do it better?’” “We always go back and say, ‘Okay, nothing is sacred here, how can we do it better?'”

Even though the company breezes along as smoothly as a well-made and perfectly installed ceiling fan, Big Ass Fans constantly reevaluates their own processes. They continually strive to get more from their products by shortening production time, increasing efficiency, and infusing more technology into the manufacturing process.

The Team and Culture

Big Ass Fans is steeped in technological innovation that applies to both their products and operations. “We're always interested in what's new, fresh, and different,” says Hurley. “The DNA of the company is to stay on that leading edge—whether it's something we're creating or something we're using from a partner.”

Big Ass Fans seeks to actively attract and hire new team members who have a keen sense of curiosity and an insatiable appetite for knowledge. “We have an environment of discovery and experimentation,” Hurley explains. “We're not shy about trying new things, and if they don't work, we go another route. But we have a real laboratory-type environment where we're perpetually interested and curious about new technologies.”

The Cloud, Data, and Technical Innovation

“It's fundamental to the growth of any company to embrace the cloud and the data-driven manufacturing process,” says Hurley. It's fundamental to the growth of any company to embrace the cloud.

“It's just expected that products are connected and that they have some intelligence on board.”

It's fundamental to the growth of any company to embrace the cloud.

“Whether it's dealing with sales data, processing data from a manufacturing plant, or collecting data from products in the field, you need to consume and analyze a high volume of data very quickly for it to be meaningful,” Hurley suggests.

In the past, they installed large ceiling fans by traveling to customer sites to evaluate potential obstructions. To do this, they conducted what’s called a CFD, or computational fluid dynamics analysis. The CFD was used to analyze and determine the best product for optimizing airflow in a space. The process worked, but it was lengthy and required multiple site visits and in-person inspections. It’s a process Big Ass Fans identified for innovation.  

Daring to Win With High Tech

To improve onsite airflow evaluations, Big Ass Fans turned to technology and built software that customers can upload to a browser. There, it builds an actual 3D model of their facility. In a matter of five or six minutes, it performs a full CFD analysis and provides results that show exactly how Big Ass Fans will function in a facility.

While that’s super cool, Big Ass Fans is—true to form—already looking ahead to how they can use augmented and mixed realities in addition to spatial computing. “We can use headsets so potential customers can view working 3D models of our products in their facility, and we can augment that with visual indications of how actual airflow would come through our products and work around any obstructions in their facility,” Hurley explains.

He also points out that it’s a lot easier to travel to tradeshows with mixed reality headsets rather than a 24-foot fan.

Adopting technology also helps improve the quality of their products. Big Ass Fans uses technology to evolve the capabilities of a ceiling fan to make it one of the most important tools in the warehouse. Big Ass Fans uses technology to evolve. For example, their Dewtect® product actually helps warehouse owners ensure the quality of products they store. “Rust is a major concern for steel producers,” says Hurley. “Our products can actually detect whether the air is becoming too moist. It kicks the fans on to clear the moisture out and saves inventory.”

Big Ass Fans uses technology to evolve.

Big Ass Fans looks at their products not just as fans, but as digital platforms that have software components. “We're a software company that lives inside these products,” Hurley says.

The company took a giant leap forward in the marketplace with a provocative name. Their popularity could have quickly faded with a less ambitious approach. Far from it. Big Ass Fans is as unapologetically innovative and experimental with their products as they are with their name.

“I think people realize from our name that we're doing things a little bit differently here,” says Hurley. “And when they look behind the scenes and see how highly engineered our products are, I think they understand that we're more than just a fan company. We’re a technology company.”