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With a company name like Big Ass Fans, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ken Walma was CEO of a company that specialized in simply selling large fans. In fact, prior to joining the company just over one year ago, Walma himself had made the same assumption.
But the reality is that, while Big Ass Fans is indeed the pioneer of the high-volume, low-speed fan, its expertise are actually far broader, delivering powerful, energy-efficient airflow solutions to business, designers and homeowners.
“When I first knew of the company, I thought it was just a fan company,” he admits. “As I was fortunate to learn more about the company through the application process, I learned it’s so much more than that, and the impact of our products goes well beyond what is known from the outside.”
“We’re going to continue to deliver what you’d expect from us and do it in the Big Ass Fans way.”
Walma’s appointment followed the 2021 acquisition of Big Ass Fans by Chicago-based investment firm Madison Industries, as it expanded its already substantial portfolio of indoor air quality solutions.
Having spent much of his 22-year career working with companies that were constantly striving to enhance their cultures, he was excited by the prospect of working somewhere that had this side of things down pat.
“Big Ass Fans has this established culture that so many companies aspire to have,” he says, referring to its energy and drive.
That wasn’t the only drawing card. Amid an uncertain economic outlook, Walma was also attracted by the company’s long-term potential and profound sense of purpose.
“I wanted to be at a place that had greater control of its destiny in being able to actualize on a value proposition that was broad and important in improving the lives of human beings,” Walma explains.
“I wanted to be at a place that was really making lives better, with a value proposition that we could continue to build upon and that could weather any economic climate.”
Fortunately, the company mission aligned well with his professional ambitions. “At a high level, what we intend to do is to lead in bringing comfort to complex environments without compromise,” he says.
“I wanted to be at a place that was really making lives better.”
“Comfort is about bringing air temperature control into complex environments where it hasn’t been before, like warehouses and other manufacturing facilities as well as exterior spaces, like ball fields, patios and two-story balconies.
“These are places where we’ve previously assumed we just have to deal with whatever the temperature, hot or cold, because it’s a complicated environment. But Big Ass Fans has the ability to offer comfort within these types of environments.”
In the shorter-term, Walma says he was excited by the challenge of taking the company forward under its new ownership, and with a fresh set of expectations.
“When I looked at that problem statement, which was around growth – expanding into product and market adjacencies and being the best place to work in the markets we served – it was exactly what I wanted to do and I believed that, with my experience, I could help,” he says.
He says the plan for the next three-to-five years is to secure a steady growth trajectory. “Over its almost 25 years, the company has had periods of meteoric growth and periods of stagnation,” he says. “In the last decade, it has not been able to demonstrate continuous growth.”
“We’re going to attack, which is really the next piece of the puzzle in figuring out the markets we’re going to serve.”
That’s why, at a high level, Big Ass Fans is now focused on developing the tools, processes and capabilities required to achieve this.
“Much of our business is around retrofitting our products into existing applications, and there is a tremendously large white-space opportunity for our products and services,” he says. “So in that growth mindset, how do we build the capabilities to do that on a continuous basis?”
The first phase is already complete – realigning and defining the company mission, purpose and flywheel – and Walma and his team are now turning their attention to the next chapter, which he anticipates will take a couple of years.
“We’re going to attack, which is really the next piece of the puzzle in figuring out the markets we’re going to serve, the product and geographic adjacencies, and the people to support that,” he says.
Big Ass Fans’ commitment to delivering the best possible experience to its customers also plays an important part in Walma’s vision for the future of the company.
“We want to be the uncompromising leader in performance, quality and service in the markets that we serve,” he says.
“Today, most of our business is in warehousing, distribution and manufacturing, but we believe there’s many other opportunities within those markets, as well as other adjacencies.”
“We want to be the uncompromising leader in performance, quality and service in the markets that we serve.”
Meanwhile, the emphasis remains on ‘local for local’, with Big Ass Fans keen to keep its supply chains, operations and assembly within the markets it serves.
“Our products are large in size, and so they are not conducive to shipping around the world from the perspective of sustainability and cost. So a big effort will be around that,” Walma explains.
Big Ass Fans has built up a strong network of stand-out suppliers – such as gearbox expert Stober and motor supplier Bonfiglioni – who Walma see as pivotal to the company’s ongoing success.
“Ninety-five percent of our supply chain for American products comes from the United States or Mexico today, so we’ve demonstrated that capability in our biggest market,” he says. “Working to attain that level of localization for all the markets we serve will be a key component of our growth.”
There’s little question that the name Big Ass Fans certainly stands out among the competition. But Walma stresses that the company’s uniqueness is more about the strength of the brand than simply its name.
“It’s what the name encapsulates,” he says. “For the last 20–30 years, as globalization has taken place, there’s been a tremendous race to find the lowest-cost manufacturing locations and materials you can get.”
The rise of online marketplaces and big global brands has also fueled this shift, which Walma describes as a “race to the bottom”. But over the last five years, he has noticed a distinct shift as customer sentiment has altered.
“People have been burned on unknown brands and products in online marketplaces, and consequently we’re seeing more and more consumers and B2B buyers going back to prioritizing product quality and performance over cost, choosing brands they can trust,” Walma reflects.
“Buyers and consumers are setting standards for the brands they want to work with. They want to have a more intimate relationship with them and hold these brands accountable to a higher level of service and product quality.”
“Buyers and consumers are setting standards for the brands they want to work with.”
Big Ass Fans is perfectly positioned to benefit thanks to its reputation for excellence in performance and quality, according to Walma. “We’re known for delivering unparalleled service,” he says. “Our NPS [net promoter score] is 84 for the customers we serve.”
While its customers once sat in a niche, they now occupy the mainstream, he says. “Big Ass Fans is now in a position to really broaden our portfolio and meet those requirements in a number of geographic and product adjacencies,” he adds.
In preparation for this next phase, Big Ass Fans has undergone a brand revamp this year. “We’ve refreshed our mission, purpose, values and the company statement,” Walma says. “All of that has been done in anticipation for this next chapter.”
This represents a recommitment to its customers that Big Ass Fans won’t compromise on the things that are important to them. “We’re going to continue to deliver what you’d expect from us and do it in the Big Ass Fans way,” he promises.
“I’m confident that we’re in a strong position to start from, and as we re-establish our focus areas, we can continue to demonstrate that to our customers.”