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Fascination with fans pays off: Fanimation's unique designs sustain company amid tough competition

June 11, 2007

Try saying that three times fast. Or better yet, check out Frampton's eclectic innovations at the local showrooms that stock them.

Frampton, 51, is president of Fanimation Inc. in Zionsville, a designer and distributor of custom fans that circulate a cool breeze in ways rivaled only by his collection of bizarre antique models that often provide his inspiration.

Foremost among his unusual creations of ceilingmounted fans is the futuristic Enigma, which sports a single blade and was featured in a scene of the "I, Robot" film, and the Air Shadow, a model with retractable blades that collapse over its light fixture.

"We stayed away from the bottom-end fans," Frampton said. "You have Home Depot and Lowe's for that."

That is, until a few months ago, when Fanimation made the difficult decision to enter the traditional fan market to give dealers more options from which to choose, Frampton said.

Yet the plethora of design patents Frampton holds has enabled his company to carve out a nice niche making fans mostly for commercial and custom-home use.

Fanimation has 45 employees at its headquarters in Bennett Technology Park and sells roughly 50,000 units annually selling from $199 to $5,000 each. Despite what Frampton described as tremendous growth during the past several years, he declined to divulge recent revenue figures.

The manufacturer ranked as IBJ's 12th-fastest-growing private company in 2002, boasting revenue growth of 208 percent from 1998 to 2000, during which time sales spiked from $2.5 million to $7.8 million.

Larger manufacturers such as Memphis-based Hunter Fan Co. and the Emerson Fan Co. in St. Louis are unlikely to need an oscillator to prevent breaking a sweat over the figures. Even so, they are imitating Fanimation's designs and dampening sales a bit, Frampton acknowledged.

Jeff Bishop, owner of Bishop Lighting Inc. in Carmel, sells Fanimation's products and echoed his sentiments.

"They have a unique look that nobody had, but of course everybody is copying them now," he said.

Fanimation's line includes decorative floor, table, wall and ceiling-mounted fans that feature a variety of blades made from wicker, bamboo and real palm leaves. Some models sway back and forth while others are belt-and-pulley driven.

Leaving California

Frampton, a California native, became interested in fans as a high school student working summers in the early 1970s for an antique collector in Pasadena.

In addition to his concentration in antique slot machines, the owner occasionally restored antique fans, which would disappear from shelves faster than anything else, Frampton recounted.

A replica the collector produced became so popular that he founded the Casablanca Fan Co. in 1975. By the time of its sale six years later to Farmhouse Foods in Wisconsin, the company had grown to 300 employees and was churning out 3,000 fans a day.

In the meantime, Frampton worked a deal to assume control of the specialty fans division, prompting him to form Fanimation.

His first design while at Casablanca was the Punkah, a large swinging fan fixed to the wall or ceiling and pulled by what is known as a coolie. Frampton's version of the fan that came into use in India during the 18th century features oval blades shaped like palm leaves and still is made today.

People who saw it and others in restaurants would want them in their homes, leading Frampton to enter the residential market in the late 1980s.

The effort received a boost from a design dubbed the Palisade, two ceiling fans at opposite ends of a rod, which appeared in the movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

A lifelong disdain for southern California, notably the smog and congestion, led Frampton to move his company to Indianapolis in 1994. The fact he had a brother already living here swayed him.

Frampton dropped stakes at 85th Street and Zionsville Road before departing for Lebanon. A lack of space and several leases that caused a logistical nightmare ultimately persuaded him to buy land and build at the business park in Zionsville.

The building is about 70,000 square feet, much of which is warehouse space. Still, Frampton rents additional space but can double the size of his current digs on property he owns next door. He plans to build when it makes economic sense.

Turning to outsourcing

The 2003 move to Zionsville occurred shortly after Fanimation quit assembling its own components and began outsourcing those operations to Asia. Today, the bulk of that is done in China, the Philippines and Thailand.

Frampton found he was spending too much to get the quality he wanted from U.S. motor manufacturers, reluctantly leading him to tool his own in Asia and begin importing the products instead.

"We were the last fan company to source over there," Frampton said. "If you want to be in the fan business, it doesn't do you much good if you don't price it right."

Despite its smaller size, the company's emphasis on customer service and quality products has helped it remain competitive. The company employs several engineers and designers and has a testing area where they hang and balance the fans.

"The main thing is that they have just a completely unique design style and product compared to our main companies," said Michael Hutson, owner of Westfield Lighting Co. "They're always looking at innovative ways to put a fan together."

Antique hobby

Some of that innovation comes from the vast array of antique fans Frampton owns. Restored models of all shapes and size, the oldest dating to the 1880s, greet visitors to the building.

To the rear of the building in the warehouse are more fans Frampton has accumulated that sit idle as they wait to swing back to life.

A few of the more unusual pieces of the collection are alcohol-powered or coin-operated, the latter of which was used in hotels long before the days of air-conditioning.

One of his ceiling fans was pulled out of a rail car sitting in a maintenance yard in Nairobi, and another was bought from the estate of late tough-guy actor Jack Palance.

Frampton is a member of the Antique Fan Collectors Association and will host its annual meeting in July.

Said Frampton of his collection: "I won't venture to guess how much I've put in it; it might make me stop."
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