Career entrepreneur Carey Smith founded fan and light maker Big Ass Fans in 1999 and served as its CEO, or Chief Big Ass as he preferred, for 18 years. While other companies made and lost their fortunes, Carey’s contrarian business practices led to sustained, rapid growth averaging 30 percent annually. Inc. magazine ranked Big Ass Fans among its list of fastest-growing private companies for 11 consecutive years — a feat achieved by only 34 others.

A true American success story, Carey grew up as the oldest of four children in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. At age 9, he started polishing his entrepreneurial skills by selling handmade crafts. By high school, he sold shoes, set type for a weekly newspaper and mopped floors. Paying his own way through college, Carey earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Hood College in 1974 and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago until he ran out of money.

A short time in the reinsurance industry confirmed what he already knew — working as an anonymous cog in a corporate machine focused solely on profit was for the birds. His boss boastfully told him the company could afford raises for him and his colleagues but knew they would work for less. Aiming to be a better kind of boss, Carey set his sights on the impossible — starting a company that was both profitable and responsible, a company that would make money to stay in business, not be in business to make money.

While farms and factories quickly embraced the fans, they scratched their collective heads at the company’s original name — The HVLS Fan Company — that was a nod to how the fans worked. Customers kept calling and asking, “Are you the company that sells those big ass fans?” Carey recognized the importance of letting customers take the lead and changed the company’s name.

Carey has earned national recognition for his common-sense business philosophies, such as selling direct, investing in silver-platter customer service and paying employees more than 30 percent above the U.S. average. Among his many awards, Inc. named him “Economy Hero” in 2011 for refusing to lay off employees during the Great Recession. He also penned a weekly column for Inc. and became a go-to source for the popular press, earning write-ups in every major publication including a front-page story in The New York Times. He’s captivated audiences at conferences including the Inc. 5000, CES, Forbes Small Giants, Brandemonium, IdeaFestival, Sage Summit, DIG SOUTH and Manufacturing Leadership Awards.

By 2017, Carey had grown Big Ass Fans from six employees to nearly a thousand who generated $250 million in annual sales. And he did so without any outside investors, a rarity in a society that glamorizes venture capital and quick exits. But Carey also grew restless. The company had grown so large it proved impossible to know each employee or visit every new location with frequency. In December 2017, he sold the company for $500 million, instantly minting 15 millionaires because of a stock appreciation rights program he developed to reward hard-working employees all the way from the production floor to top management. In total, employees received nearly $50 million.

Carey is now focused on his next business — Unorthodox Ventures. A twist on the classic business incubator, Unorthodox Ventures is a small team of fearless millennials seeking to discover companies with big potential. The group evolved from a similar one at Big Ass Fans dubbed The Kitchen that developed big ideas totally separate from the company’s core business efforts like how to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in hospitals in Rwanda and Haiti. And when the members of Unorthodox Ventures succeed, they’ll profit, too, as they have ownership stakes in both Unorthodox Ventures and the companies they build.

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HOW EMBRACING A “FAIL FAST” APPROACH CAN ACTUALLY HELP YOU SUCCEED

Every year, American entrepreneurs start more than half a million companies, but only 200 will ever reach $100 million in revenue. Even those who succeed will fail frequently along the way, and Carey knows firsthand what it takes to change promising to prosperous. In fact, it was failure that led him to start Big Ass Fans. He founded a prior company and spent more than a decade installing sprinklers on the roofs of industrial buildings to cool their interiors. The company never saw annual sales rise above $1.4 million, though. Carey will tell you how, at the time, he ignored warning signs and thought he should persevere just a little bit longer. Eventually he used the company’s proceeds to start Big Ass Fans and offer an indoor solution to the sweltering heat in factories. He learned the valuable lesson that you can usually tell within a short time if an idea’s going to work. If it doesn't, make the conscious decision to fail fast. The right kind of entrepreneur will appreciate taking risks and writing off a few mistakes along the way. Carey will discuss how he tells employees, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not working.” That’s because growth comes only from taking risks.

PAY YOUR EMPLOYEES ENOUGH TO THRIVE OR GET OUT OF BUSINESS

Carey firmly believes in the lost art of sharing and considers it the key to good capitalism, which is based on an idea as basic as the Golden Rule. It’s the belief that people and profits need and benefit each other. It shows itself in quality products and service, as well as generous treatment of employees and suppliers. At Big Ass Fans, Carey paid wages 30% higher than the national average and 50% higher than the average in Kentucky, where the company is headquartered. He also set up a Stock Appreciation Rights program to give loyal employees from the factory floor to top executives a stake in the company, because he firmly believes it’s impossible for rank-and-file employees to build wealth, even with a 401(k). Carey will discuss how companies that can’t afford to pay their people fairly and offer strong health benefits need to revisit their business model, not their interpretation of labor laws. Carey will tell you how he does this not because he’s a great guy (even though he is), but because he’s a good capitalist. He expects high wages will lead to quality work. Not surprisingly, it does.

SILVER-PLATTER CUSTOMER SERVICE: WHATEVER IT TAKES, IT’S WORTH THE COST

When was the last time you — as a customer — had a customer service experience you didn't hate? Dealing with customer service can be time-consuming and frustrating, and your problem rarely gets fixed. Carey will detail how you can build a customer service operation that outclasses your competitors. Just put yourself in the customer's position. What would impress you? Figure it out and then do it. Yes, it costs money. Deal with it. You don't have to make a profit on every sale, and a satisfied customer is going to bring in more business in the long run through positive word-of-mouth. Carey built an operation at Big Ass Fans with a net promoter score ranking three times higher than the manufacturing industry average. Behind the success was Carey's customer advocacy approach of proactively reaching out to all customers. Proactive outreach does more than impress people. If you're open to feedback — good and bad — you can spot patterns of problems and fix them before you have to do something as costly, disruptive and reputation-damaging as a recall.

Carey gave an honest and open presentation about how he built his business. The talk was entertaining and often funny. He wasn’t afraid to go against the common narrative and ruffle a few feathers, either!
— Ben Fletcher, founder of entrepreneur conference Fast Growth Icons