This article appears on page 7 of the February 9, 2012 print edition of Ace Weekly
Big Ass Fans’ Carey and Nancy Smith: a Fan-Powered Power Couple
by Heather C. Watson
Everyone in Lexington knows the name “Big Ass Fans” — the local fan company with the funny name and the irreverent donkey logo. Perhaps less familiar are the names of the company’s founders, Carey and Nancy Smith.
The Power Couple behind the hip advertising and the powerful fans, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are college sweethearts who will soon celebrate their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. They are also smart businesspeople with an equal commitment to financial success and corporate responsibility. With hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Smiths — Carey an economist and Nancy an attorney — have built Lexington’s influential manufacturing company with a giggle-worthy name.
Originally incorporated as the more prosaic Delta T Corporation, the Smiths’ company manufactures industrial, commercial, agricultural, and residential fans. The story goes that sales representatives and company executives were so often asked by potential customers and HVAC insiders “Are you the company that sells the big-ass fans?” that the name started to stick. With some visionary marketing and more than a little good humor, a brilliant company name was born.
The quirky, irreverent branding of Big Ass Fans, which features an iconic cartoon donkey standing in front of a large fan, has earned acclaim from business analysts across the country. Feature pieces on MSNBC and Bloomberg have credited the brilliant branding as a platform for generating buzz and success for an already outstanding product.
Locally, Big Ass Fans is known as a fun, forward-thinking workplace that employs more than 200 Central Kentuckians. As the company’s CEO, Carey Smith has maintained a commitment to his employees’ quality of life — a five o’clock “quitting time” is legendarily enforced. The company is known for on-site foosball and pool tables, company picnics, and generally taking care of its employees. While consistently making the list of Kentucky’s 25 Best Places to work, the company has managed to grow its business even during tough economic times. The company is also known for its commitment to sustainability. The Big Ass Fans Research and Testing Center was awarded the Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status by the U.S. Green Building Council.
The Smiths have been together since their college days in Illinois. Perhaps foreshadowing the future path of their company, their relationship was built on Carey’s first-rate salesmanship and a fantastic advertising pitch.
Says Nancy: “We met in 1974, when I was a sophomore at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL and Carey was a graduate student in economics at the University of Chicago, at a restaurant called Yesterdays near the NU campus. Carey came up to Evanston one Saturday night with two other friends from UC and they were sitting in the booth parallel to the booth in which my best friend Lisa and I were sitting… At some point one of Carey’s friends leaned over their booth to me and said (referring to Carey) ‘My friend here thinks that you are the reincarnation of his first love,’ which was as original a pickup line as I had ever heard.”
Needless to say, Nancy fell for the line, “possibly because I had just turned 19 and was legally able to drink under Illinois law, though I am sure I mainly was influenced by the fact that Carey was great looking and had great academic credentials,” she adds. “I let Carey walk me back to my dorm and we saw each other practically every weekend after that. We married in June 1977, the weekend before my graduation from college.”
Like any successful business venture, the Smiths’ marriage is built on hard work. Nancy defines their relationship as a partnership: “One of the keys to a successful marriage is not just to have common goals and aspirations, but also to support the other person’s individual goals, and to willingly make sacrifices to ensure that those goals are achieved. At times Carey supported me (when I went 800 miles away to law school, seven years after we were married), and at other times I supported him (such as when I was the only one earning a salary in the early days of the business), because we understood that we would be maximizing our individual potential and thereby optimizing the success of the whole marital partnership.”
Nancy adds, “We balance each other well: I tend to be a micromanager and much more critical, Carey is a big picture person and more generous. I am pretty conservative and cautious, and Carey is more of a risk taker and relies a lot on instinct. I have learned to trust his instincts, since they certainly have helped us create a successful business, and he has learned (for the most part) to proceed more slowly and carefully in pursuing new ventures.”
As the Smiths pursue new business ventures, they work hard to ensure that their company makes a positive impact. The Big Ass Fans commitment to charitable giving can be felt internationally. When the Clinton Health Access Initiative identified an impoverished Rwanda in high need for a health care center, Big Ass Fans chipped in, contributing a fan system for the newly-constructed hospital. As a tribute to the cartoon donkey mascot, Fanny, Big Ass Fans is a longtime supporter of the Longhopes Donkey Rescue in Colorado. Recently, the company has led efforts to rescue an Iraqi donkey, nicknamed Smoke, whom U.S. Marines had befriended in Fallujah. Smoke is now working as a therapy animal in Utah.
Big Ass Fans has a strong commitment to bettering the Lexington community as well. The sale of pink t-shirts, branded with the Big Ass Fans logo and promising, according to the company website, to help one “get in touch with your feminine side or show how comfortable you are in your masculinity,” benefits breast cancer research. The company also serves as a sponsor for several local charities, including the BalagulaTheatre Company and Living Arts and Science Center.
H’artful of Fun
On February 11, the Big Ass Fans Research and Development site will host H’artful of Fun, the annual fundraiser for the Living Arts and Science Center, a Lexington not-for-profit museum and community arts center. The annual event, now in its twenty-second year, has grown from a small, in-house fundraiser to an 800-guest gala. For the past five years, the huge Big Ass Fans campus on Jaggie Fox Way has been home to the event. Heather Lyons, Executive Director of the Living Arts and Science Center, says: “When Big Ass Fans built their research facility, the building was completed just a week or so before our event and they even waited to move into their new building until AFTER we had had our event —- So, they let us actually use their building before they did!”
This year’s event, a 1950s themed gala entitled Rebel with a Cause, which will feature vintage 1950s cars and fashions, a drive-in movie and a full soda fountain. Among the silent auction items are a in-house dinner for twenty-four catered by Gratz Park Inn chef Jonathan Lundy, a and a custom Big Ass Fan decorated by Lexington designer and craftswoman Blake Eames.
Heather Lyons credits Big Ass Fans’ support as a a huge factor in the ongoing success of the H’artful event. “Big Ass Fans has been a wonderful partner for us. They never do anything small —- they only think BIG!” Lyons says. “This event takes us DAYS to set-up which means that Big Ass Fans basically has to stop using their building on Thursday before our event — it takes us three days to move in and set-up and then usually a day and a half to take it all down. So, that is a tremendous contribution in that they cease their own work in order to give us several days in their facility.”
Big Ass Fans is more than Lexington’s most awesomely-named company; it’s a company committed to bettering Lexington’s economy, environment, and community. Carey and Nancy Smith, a 2012 Ace Power Couple, have enriched us all through their professional and personal partnership.