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How Keeping Cows Cool Led To A Half-Billion Dollar Company

It really did all start with cows.


The founder of Big Ass Fans, Carey Smith, had worked with a company that made large, slow-moving fans designed to cool cow barns, as heat reduces the amount of milk that cows can produce. Smith saw an opportunity to apply the concept in warehouses, and he formed HVLS Fan Co. around his own design (the name being an abbreviation for his “high-volume, low-speed” fan). He marketed his innovation to both dairy farmers and warehouse operators, but it soon became popular for broader factory applications as well.


That growing popularity led to the company’s eventual name change.


“People would call in and say, ‘I want one of those big-ass fans,’” Jim Flickinger, the company’s senior vice president and chief commercial officer, said.


The company began to see growth in commercial air-conditioned spaces as well, including schools, restaurants, retail stores and churches–growth that continues today.


Big Ass Fans has built its whole business around those additional fan applications, along with other products they’ve added to their line such as evaporative coolers and heaters. As a result, the company has grown rapidly since it was founded in 1999, and it’s constantly adding new solutions to continue that growth. “Coming out of the pandemic, one of our biggest customers has been Planet Fitness,” Flickinger said.

Now its full slate of offerings has the company well-positioned to play a significant role in helping solve industry’s ongoing challenges in getting the workers it needs. Part of the inherent difficulty in addressing those hiring challenges is that our younger generations are less willing to put up with extreme environments in their jobs. By 2030, more than two million labor jobs risk going unfilled, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Fortunately, there are new methods out there to improve the situation when it comes to hot, cold and humid environments, and that’s where Big Ass Fans continues to focus.

“We as a company are out there trying to create awareness of how we can create comfort,” Flickinger continued. “We’re adamant about getting our name out there. We have a history of putting science behind things, and not creating one-size-fits-all solutions.” That culture soon spread, and is now felt by the nearly 700 global employees across four offices: the Global HQ campus in Lexington, Kentucky, and sub-offices in Canada, Australia, and Singapore. Collectively, those offices have now sold more than a million fans worldwide now serving customers in 175 countries, and customers include more than three quarters of Fortune 500 companies.


The company grew so rapidly in its first two decades, Smith was able to command a $500 million price tag when he sold it to a private equity group, Lindsay Goldberg, in 2017. “I came in early in 2018,” said Flickinger. “I led a turnaround where we added new products to our portfolio. Last July, we were bought by Madison Industries [a private operating company with a slate of brands focused on health and safety]. That was a great situation. Madison does an excellent job seeing not just today, but years into the future. They want to make a difference. They have a great mission that aligns with ours.”


A mission to make the world safer, healthier and more productive


As Flickinger implied, fans alone weren’t enough to provide all the solutions customers needed, though. “We were a seasonal business with just fans,” he said. “Now we’re year-round with heaters and evaporative coolers too. We also have a great software solution [the company’s proprietary SpecLab 3D simulation software], that helps customers map out where they need heat, cooling, or dehumidification. We also saw an opportunity with IoT, where people want integrated solutions.” Big Ass Fans now offers a complete slate of industrial and commercial work environment solutions including large and small ceiling fans, directional fans, evaporative coolers and heaters, as well as residential indoor and outdoor fans with access to a wide range of additional products within the Madison portfolio.

Being part of the larger Madison Industries organization brings other synergies as well. “In the past, we had to do our own due diligence when we looked at acquisitions,” Flickinger said. “Now we go to our parent company, and they’ll go do that for us.” With its 315 facilities in 40 countries, and over 20,000 employees, Madison Industries certainly has the heft to help Big Ass Fans grow its businesses.


Looking forward, the company’s focus will continue to be on building the industrial solutions side of its business while further expanding into other markets. “Everybody will get creating a more comfortable work environment,” said Flickinger. “Comfort creates more productive work. But there’s also the safety aspect too, which lots of people may not understand.”


Also critical to the future is maintaining what made the company great in the first place. “One thing that makes us unique is our culture,” Flickinger said. “We have a great name, and we have fun with it. But we also have products that mean a lot, and are very serious. People love to work here and have fun. Our culture is definitely unique, and it’s driven by our name.”


After its best sales year ever in 2021, the one-time startup set sales records in May and June of this year as it eyes a $375 million sales goal for the first time ever. It’s clear the market for comfort is big business.


This article has been modified to better highlight the company’s origins.


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