Thought(ful) Leader Series: Big Ass Fans Founder Carey Smith

I have asked leaders in different fields whom I respect their views on leadership today and what conversations they think we need to be having. If you find something valuable here, please share this post and leave your comment or question.

“Empathy and expertise command respect,” writes U.S. Army lieutenant general William G. Pagonis in the Harvard Business Review. Those two qualities reflect how I think of today’s thoughtful leader is Carey Smith. This is a leader, after all, who during the recession of 2007-08 did not follow his competitors’ actions by laying off people. Instead, he gave them small bonuses.

As you will see in this colorful interview, Smith reveals his secret to creating a company with a 200-year vision: How you care for and treat people. He truly is proving that we can do business-as-unusual.

In this Thought(ful) Leader interview, Carey will share with us why he equates his approach to leading to the actions of a dung beetle, his simple yet profound approach to leading, and how as a high school student he led his school through an innovative educational experiment. – Jeffrey

Jeffrey: When you “look around” the world and within your field, where do you see a need for a bold or new kind of leadership?

Carey: It’s easy to make generalizations about leadership, but the truth is most situations in business are different and require unique approaches.

At a recent conference, I listened to the CEO of Exxon describe his tireless efforts to rise through the ranks. Any number of people might think, “I could run Exxon.” In reality, I know I couldn’t. The structured environment which has proven to be successful for them and similar businesses wouldn’t work for me or Big Ass Solutions and our tribe of employees.

We have become the company we are today by embracing an unstructured approach in much of our business. While our manufacturing departments follow well-defined processes, many of which are computerized, we look to constantly rework other aspects of the company’s operation. I always say if you’re comfortable, you’re not working, and often equate the idea to leading like a dung beetle. Why a dung beetle? He has one goal — relentlessly pushing and patting his ball of dung. Strange as it may sound, it’s a good lesson in constant attention and an inspiration for anyone running a company. There’s always something to fix, something to tweak or a bump in the ball that threatens to throw the whole thing off course.

And, I think it’s in that philosophy that there’s another strong leadership lesson. A great leader knows how to push boundaries to grow a business, yet understands that taking risks means making mistakes. You can usually tell within a short time if an idea’s going to work. If it’s not working, change course and do so quickly. Our approach may sound chaotic, but it ensures our business remains nimble and always in search of new opportunities.

What traits define for you a “thoughtful leader”? What is a “thought leader”?

The most successful leaders are those who respect and think at all times of their three core groups—customers, employees and suppliers. Think of them as the legs of a three-legged stool. They keep a company in business and successful, and you need to concentrate on all three or problems ensue. Frankly, it’s a concept that is fall-off-a-log simple. It’s just like how they say, “all I ever really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” Do unto others as you would have them to unto you. It’s a simple approach that too many leaders ignore. Thoughtful leaders will always keep it in mind.

When did you realize you were a leader in your field, a leader of ideas, or a leader of a conversation?

During my senior year of high school, I set about convincing the administration to let me design the curriculum for three days. The principal balked, but the superintendent loved the idea. With the help of a small committee, I created a curriculum for 750 students and a total of 250 class periods. The classes focused on anything that might interest students.

Because we were located outside of Washington, D.C., we invited several members of Congress to speak, as well as public safety officers, even chess experts. This entire endeavor took from the beginning of the school year until the actual event in April, but it was so successful and rewarding. I learned the best leaders lead by example and explore the unexplored. You don’t stick your nose in the butt of a follower and claim you’re leading. You create conversations, develop ideas and convince people, even cranky principals, to follow your vision. As Captain James T. Kirk told us every week, aim for “where no man has gone before.”

What’s the conversation you hope more people will have or the question you hope more people will consider this year?

True leaders should remember it’s not all about themselves. The only way to be a leader is to have people to lead. A thoughtful leader knows the importance of this simple concept and the need for mutual respect and common vision.

If you could change or influence more people’s perceptions or notions of something, what would it be?

It all goes back to the simple concept of “it’s not all about you.” People’s perceptions are often limited to their own myopic view of the world. In reality, there is far more to think about than yourself. I would suggest more people and companies consider learning what’s beyond their simple circle. It’s important to do the work and understand the facts versus living in a vacuum and believing something for the sole reason that it came from the loudest voice.

Who is someone you have looked up to or looked back to as an exemplar for how you hope you lead?

Before I started Big Ass Solutions, I considered a very important question—what kind of leader did I want to be. I already had an idea, as I was lucky enough to have sold shoes as a teen for a store manager who continues to influence me.

He barely made more money than I did, but every year he would throw these lavish, over-the-top Thanksgiving dinners. Reminiscent of Mr. Fezziwig from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mr. Lane was generous and looked out for us, but he acted like it was nothing. I knew that was the kind of boss I wanted to be.

On the other hand, a regional manager for the store was just mean and petty—he would destroy an old product rather than give it to charity, revealing a lack of empathy and respect. Bosses leave impressions that will stick with you, both good and bad.

What kind of boss do you want to be? The regional manager toed the company line and focused on money. I’d argue that even though my manager barely scraped by—his lunch every day was a slice of American cheese on two pieces of white bread with black coffee and Lucky Strike cigarettes—he was the more successful boss. Yes, he was gruff and a tad eccentric, but he appreciated us, and we worked harder for him because of it.

What one thing or idea or wisdom do you hope people remember you for?

There’s more to running a business than simply making money. Focusing exclusively on profit—as is often the case with publicly traded, venture-backed companies—is what dooms otherwise solid leaders to consistent short-term decision-making. So it’s no surprise that the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company is less than 50 years.

We’ve spent years refining the idea of becoming a 200-year company, one that will live long after I am around to walk the floors. Our mission is to engineer meaningful improvement in the lives of our customers and build a community for our employees and their families.

I only have one son, but I think about all the other “sons and daughters” who are a part of this success. I want to foster a vision and build a team to think, “Yes, this is where I belong. Yes, this is a company for which I am proud to work. And, yes, this is where my family and I can prosper for years to come.”

And future leaders of the company need to share our vision and perpetuate it. If they settle and don’t keep seeking new markets, products and services, the company won’t move forward.


nav_4_6400344__big-ass-fans-logoCarey Smith founded the HVLS Fan Co. in 1999, with a focus on manufacturing large-diameter fans for agricultural facilities. The company’s first line of products included several iterations of a large-diameter, low-speed ceiling fan for industrial and agricultural use. These fans use airfoils instead of flat blades and feature onboard variable-frequency drives. Smith changed the name to Big Ass Fans in 2002 after numerous customers called the company asking if it made “those big-ass fans.” Find out more at


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