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MOTIVATING

Motivating Employees: 'We're Not a Family, but We Are a Tribe'

A company with an offensive name takes care of its employees and makes a profit. Maybe propriety isn't all it's cracked up to be.
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Carey Smith, the CEO of a company called Big Ass Fans, says, "We're growing at 30 percent per year, and we don't take ourselves too seriously." Obviously, he starts with the company name. He personally exemplifies that not-too- serious attitude by listing his title on his business card as Chief Big Ass.

Business tends to be a serious thing. Especially when you're building large industrial fans, you'd think a little seriousness would be a good idea. Smith is serious about both his fans and his employees, but that doesn't mean he needs to be stuffy.

And because he's serious about his employees, he makes sure Big Ass Fans is a great place to work. A manufacturing employee at Big Ass Fans earns around $32,000 a year, plus benefits, after two years. This is a not only a great wage for the Kentucky town where the company is located, but a tremendous amount compared to what their competitors pay in China. How can Big Ass Fans possibly be competitive against the low wages on the opposite side of the world?

Smith explains: "From my perspective it's laughable to kvetch about not paying people more. You get what you pay for. If your business is running so lean that you cannot afford to pay someone enough money to survive on, you probably shouldn't be in business." It is all about getting what you pay for, and being prepared.

In 2008-2009 a recession hit, but Big Ass Fans made a conscious decision not to lay off anyone. The logic? The recession would end, and when it did, they'd just have to hire people back. And you can't just magically hire people. You have to recruit, train, and generally ramp up. All that costs a fortune. So, they just kept everyone on.

It wasn't easy. In fact, Smith characterizes it as very difficult, but he thinks that very act of not laying off workers allowed the company to grow from $34 million in 2009 to $125 million today. "We didn't have to waste time screening or training. We were ready to rock. The employees recognize the respect. We're not a family, but we are a tribe."

And employees respond to that tribe feeling. While the customer is still number one, the employees come in a close second. Smith treats them right, and his business grows. "It's capitalism," he says, "We do what it takes. This works. We're proof that it works. When you pay your people a good wage and treat them better than your extended family, it pays off."

And that name? It's a little on the offensive side, and I can't help but wonder if that affects business. So I started asking around. Some people said, "I'd never do business with a company named that!" but more said, "Oh! I know Big Ass Fans! My office/gym/husband's workplace uses them. They are awesome." I thought, who pays attention to the fans at the gym? Apparently, lots of people do, and they notice and remember. So not taking yourself too seriously does pay off--as long as you take your employees seriously.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 15, 2013

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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