Charting Big Ass Fans' Digital Transformation Journey

Charting Big Ass Fans' Digital Transformation Journey

Kimberly Eubank, Chief Digital Information Officer for Big Ass Fans, tells us why a cool and comfortable workforce is the key to success in manufacturing

Each new day offers a fresh set of challenges in the manufacturing industry. As for most businesses, manufacturers oversee their processes flow from end to end, from order-taking to building the product and shipping it. In addition to all of that – businesses need to ensure that their workforce is comfortable.

In any profession, when employees are working at a comfortable temperature, they are more productive. If staff are working in a factory that doesn't have air conditioning and it’s hotter inside the building than outdoors, they will get tired faster and be more prone to making mistakes. Comfort is key to employee retention, safety and morale.

Big Ass Fans manufactures industrial and residential fans, as well as infrared heaters and coolers. The team at the top ensures that the employee experience is comfortable, which in turn, makes the customer experience a seamless one. Big Ass Fans is transforming itself internally to scale to a billion-dollar business.

As its Chief Digital Information Officer, Kimberly Eubank was brought in to spearhead digital transformation efforts and allow for Big Ass Fans to gracefully scale to this goal. 

“We have been focused on tackling a lot of system improvements, from putting in a new integration layer so our systems properly talk to each other, to revamping our front-end tools to ensure that we have accurate data assurance,” she says. 

But before we get to automation and AI, we must talk about the company name…

Comfort without Compromise at Big Ass Fans

Big Ass Fans was first formed in 1999 as HVLS Fan Co., yet customers kept asking for “those big-ass fans”. In 2001, the company changed its name to ‘Big Ass Fans’ feeling that this suited the irreverent culture at the Lexington, Kentucky, headquarters - and from the factory floor all the way to Eubank’s office, they’re proud of it.

“It is just an extraordinarily memorable - and also an accurately descriptive - name,” she shares. “We have fun with it. It is a fun brand, it is a memorable brand, and we don't go very far, very long, without somebody commenting on the name.”

The core mission at Big Ass Fans is to provide comfort without compromise, with its fans, evaporative coolers and range of heating options for use in industrial settings, as well as domestic. 

“We’re committed to helping with the wellbeing of both the residential customer and workers in industrial facilities. We are a premium brand, and we pride ourselves on the quality we provide. So, can you get a similarly large fan elsewhere? Yes, but our quality, performance and engineering are unsurpassed.”

Now owned by Madison Industries, Big Ass Fans aims to take its products and make them better known to more people in a wide variety of industries, as well as in the high-end residential sector. As Eubank began to lead the digital enablement charge, she looked at the entire business and asked three questions: 

  • What does Big Ass Fans have that the company wants to keep?
  • What needs to be updated?
  • What is missing? 

“We've really tackled it from all angles,” says Eubank. “We're looking at our core platforms - ERP, CRM, online experience, transportation management systems and so on. We focused on what we need to do to be able to handle increased sales volume, without breaking under that volume, and without having to triple our workforce.”

This was where Eubank saw the potential to gain efficiencies through automation so that Big Ass Fans could take its highly talented employees and refocus them on bigger problems, instead of wasting their time on some simple tasks that could be handled through system automation. For Eubank, unified communication systems are vital to meet increased customer demand. 

“When I think of unified communication in our space, I think really of an omnichannel experience for customers. By making sure that no matter what point of entry they want to interact with us, whether it's over the phone, online, in person or through a distributor, that we have adequate information for the customer, as well as for our own employees at the point of need.” 

That's the way that the omnichannel experience works: When customers need information, they get it quickly and efficiently.

Using AI and analytics for business and operational insights

Despite its openness to automation, Big Ass Fans has not yet started to delve into the AI space. 

“To really leverage AI to its fullest potential, you have to have really clean data underneath,” Eubank explains. “I think that while there's a lot of talk about AI, there are probably not a tonne of companies who have their data in the right architecture to fully leverage AI solutions yet.”

Big Ass Fans is taking the time to get its underlying core accurate and integrated so that it has layers of data readiness and integration before moving into the AI space. Previously, Eubank improved call centres and the introduction of chatbots posed a similar challenge to unleash their full potential. 

“Everybody wanted to have a chatbot, but when they started trialling chatbots, businesses then realised just how much effort it takes to get the right answer out of the chatbot. At the time, you had to have human beings, sitting there, teaching the chatbot what the right answers were. Then you had to have the data in the right format for the chatbot to grab it and respond properly.”

While Eubank feels a little deja vu with AI, she acknowledges that it will progress, but it will happen at a different pace for different companies due to their varying situations.

As previously discussed, automation of both the product and internal operations has helped efficiency and cost savings for Big Ass Fans. 

“When you talk about efficiency gains, it's those little incremental efficiencies that really add up over time,” Eubank explains. “We're working on some enhancements for our customer service team right now where they are performing a series of manual steps that could be automated. 

“Every time they reach out to a customer, that's a human being gathering all that data for the customer. Now, we're working on having a system to compile information for them to provide to the customer, so that we can free up time to focus on more value-added activities for our customers.”

Being able to fully automate such processes adds more value to work, while individually it doesn’t sound like much, the amalgamation of those improvements pays dividends to the business as a whole.

In Eubank’s approach to a culture shift and change management, she recognises that the hardest part is the culture. In any transformation, job or project Eubank is involved with, she sees her role as a problem solver for people.

“I always want to be able to get a good list of what the projects are. The way you gather the list is as varied as the people doing the gathering. It doesn't really matter how you do it, it matters that you end up with a list of things that you need to go and tackle.”

There are always early adopters, people who are drowning in their jobs and are desperate for someone to focus on their team and help them. But there are also always the stringent holdouts and those who are going to evolve at different times. 

“You just have to try to find the problems that each group really cares about. Once you start fixing those problems, then everyone gets on board,” she says.

Eubank sees the adoption of digitalisation as critical to the success of technology implementation.

“Digital transformation is not optional. Industry must move at the speed of technology,” says Eubank. “I think years ago people were saying Amazon ruined it for the rest of us because they've really got their experience down. When you have that ease of finding, clicking, and buying when getting a product delivered in your personal life, you very quickly start to expect that in your business life as well.”

What Eubank found was that there are companies who have quietly continued to evolve their experiences incrementally over time, and that resulted in their offerings and experiences being in step with ever-evolving customer expectations. 

“Then you have some companies that were the industry leader, the big gorilla, which thought they did not need to do those things,” Eubank explains. “They didn't invest in their experiences, whether that be customer or employee - or both.”

They're sitting here, ten years down the road, seeing people buying from their competitor suddenly and realising that their competitor is easier to do business with. 

“Ease of doing business has a monetary value to companies, because if you can buy the same relative product for a relative price from multiple sources, customers are going to take the easiest path,” she says.

Eubank is clear that all companies have to keep up with the pace of technology and the evolving expectations of customers and employees. 

“If your employee experience is not good, your employees are going to leave you and go to somebody that not only treats their employees well, but also makes it easier to get their work done.” 

Big Ass Fans is striving to improve both the customer and employee experiences through their digitisation efforts. 

Cool manufacturing partnerships 

Big Ass Fans partnered with many specialty firms to provide expertise in key areas of their transformation. One partner, Reaktor, was brought in to help overhaul their website design. 

“Reaktor comes with an exemplary pedigree of work on website experiences and technology. We were struggling with how best to marry our residential experience and our industrial experience online and making that seamless for our customers. Reaktor helped us think through that and implement the changes.”

“What really impressed me about Reaktor is that they were willing to work with us upfront to prove their value. They went in and evaluated our website and came back with some real recommendations before we even had a formalised working arrangement.”

In Spring 2024, Big Ass Fans will launch its new online experience, which is going to be familiar, yet refreshed.

Another of Big Ass Fans’ strategic partnerships is with CTSI Global, the vendor for its new transportation management system, Honeybee™. 

“Our goal was to improve our logistics experience for our customers. We want to make sure that the customer is informed on the status of their shipment’s progress in a timely manner as well as help to streamline our internal operational processes. A transportation management system is something that our operations facilities utilise to pick the best route at the best price, and then optimises that selection to ensure timely delivery for our customers,” she says. 

Through interfaces with CTSI, Big Ass Fans can better inform its customers in a more proactive way about where their shipment is along that path. 

“We are about halfway through the project. We expect to get a lot of efficiencies out of the new system as well as having a lot more visibility through the final leg of delivery for our customers. We are very excited to complete that project.”

Over the next 12 to 18 months, Big Ass Fans will be focused on completing a lot of its first tranche of work. But the busy season for fan purchases is fast approaching. 

“Our busy season, as you might imagine for fans, is in the summer,” she explains. “We have a lot of things that we're trying to get done before then.”

In the autumn, Big Ass Fans will begin to take its ERP to the cloud. 

“We're committed to not carrying over technical debt into the new architecture and to rethinking what's the right operational processes for how we do business in 2024 and beyond.”

Eubank is looking forward to evolving the current ERP into the cloud with new, cleaner, more streamlined and automated work processes, so the company can keep building fans that keep customers comfortable, without compromise.


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