Imagine working for a company that feels like running your own business because, well, employees are allowed entrepreneurial rights.
Big Ass Solutions, located in the heart of Lexington, KY, is such a company. They manufacture fans, lights and controls for commercial and residential use.
What's with the name, you ask? It officially stuck after enough customers kept calling and asking if they made "those big-ass fans." Their largest is 24 feet in diameter, hanging from ceilings of stores and warehouses like Target, Whole Foods, and Amazon.
They've also made some big ass revenues. Since 2009, Big Ass Solutions grew from $34 million to $226 million, landing the company on the Inc. 5000 list of America's fastest-growing private companies.
But the real reason I wanted to write this piece is to shine the spotlight on their unique leader and founder, Carey Smith. Pardon me, the honorable "Chief Big Ass" Carey Smith. Yes, quite fitting, and his actual executive title.
I had an in-depth conversation with Smith to learn more about the positive, high-performing Big Ass Solutions culture that reflects his own rare and counter-intuitive leadership style.
Entrepreneurial spirit, the Big Ass way.
Smith says that it all starts at the hiring level. When you hire bright, entrepreneurial-minded employees who take initiative, and add to the equation people with the natural inclinations toward curiosity, transparency, and being a contrarian, "you've got the makings of a great workforce."
A contrarian? That's clearly how Smith is wired to the core, and that's what he expects from every person he hires. If you're new to the idea, contrarians are people that push against the status quo by doing, thinking, and behaving in unconventional ways, at the speed of innovation. This is what Smith has set in place as a cultural mindset at Big Ass Solutions. He says,
"We're continuously looking to break new things, whether they are channels, ideas or conceptions of products. From my perspective, that is the definition of an entrepreneur -- somebody or a group of people continuously trying to tread a new or different path. When you hire bright people who take the initiative and are creative, and you offer them that opportunity, you've opened the door to being entrepreneurial."
With this much freedom and democracy to carve your own path, employees have started entirely new divisions and launched new products with the company's backing. Its most shining example is that of product manager Keith McKay, a former auto mechanic.
Realizing that most handheld and area lights broke easily, were tethered to power cords or relied on underpowered batteries that produced a weak light, McKay started researching on his own time, evaluating existing products and talking to American workers about what they wanted in a light.
As the story goes, McKay enlisted the help of a small team of Big Ass Solutions' star engineers, often working through lunch and on weekends on this passion project, to eventually create the brightest, toughest handheld light ever made.
Reflecting on this employee success story, Smith admits, "When I was 28 or 29 [as was McKay], I wish somebody had offered me the opportunity of building out an idea that I had. I think that's a cool deal. What I try to do here is get people an opportunity to work a job that I wish I had when I was their age."
As you can imagine, the employee retention rate at Big Ass Solutions is obviously high -- 85 percent in 2016. Consequently, they've been high on their state's coveted Best Places to Work list for eight straight years, landing as high as No. 3.
"It's not about the money."
Smith pays his employees (mostly Millennials, with the average age being thirty-two) more than both the local and national averages. The reason is grounded in his strong belief of paying it forward. He knows his Millennial employees are deeply community-focused and he encourages them to be actively involved in supporting their city.
"It's not about the money--we pay about 30 percent more than the national average--it's the way you're treated as an employee, I think that's the important thing," says Smith.
Being direct and no-nonsense, I truly appreciated his candor as we concluded our interview. Smith minced no words about his distaste for businesses that value profit more than purpose. Here's Smith's parting words:
"If all you're thinking about is the money, if all you're thinking about is your exit plan, you should not be [in business]. There's so much more to business than the money. When you're starting a business, you have to think long-term, think about what you're doing for the customer, the problem you're solving, and not about filling a bank account."