It’s not unusual for a manufacturing firm to offer English as a Second Language classes. But at AAON, Spanish is among the on-site courses that employees can choose from.

“We have enough Spanish-speakers in supervisory roles that it makes for increased communication,” says Gary Fields, CEO of AAON, the Tulsa-based manufacturer of semi-custom HVAC units for commercial use. He was named president in 2016 and CEO this year.

An emphasis on diversity and inclusion, Fields says, “is a key to our success.” 

People from a broad range of cultures “populate our company at all levels, from officers to the plant floor,” with 19 languages spoken among the production workers, says Fields.

AAON participates in the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce Mosaic Diversity and Inclusion Index, and has been recognized as a Mosaic Top Inclusive Workplace.

“We invest heavily in education and professional development opportunities for our team members and promote primarily from within the company,” says Fields. “We have strengthened our corporate responsibility efforts and offer many opportunities for our team members to engage in the community.”

AAON supports workforce readiness organizations such as the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance and Junior Achievement. Employees volunteer at local schools, participate in mentoring programs and support the Tulsa Area United Way. 

AAON Inc. was founded in 1988 with the acquisition of the heating and air conditioning division of the John Zink Company. It now employs 2,400 people in three plants – including 1,900 in Tulsa – after later acquiring Coils Plus of Longview, Texas, and WattMaster Controls in Parkville, Mo.

A 220,000-square-foot expansion is underway at the Longview plant, and AAON considered moving its corporate headquarters as part of the company’s continued growth trajectory. But, says Fields, “the roots of our company are here. What made the most sense was the headquarters remaining here but additional manufacturing capacity in Longview.”

Oklahoma, Fields says, “is a very business-friendly state. The low utility costs, central location and pro-business environment have contributed to AAON’s growth over the years.”

Tulsa’s available workforce also keeps AAON in Oklahoma.

We invest heavily in education and professional development opportunities for our team members and promote primarily from within the company.

Gary Fields

“Our team at AAON is essential to our success and has reflected this value during these challenging times with our record shipments and earnings,” says Fields.

Those “challenging times” include a pandemic.

“We have implemented a number of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” says Fields. “Masks are required at our facilities and each team member completes a health and temperature screening on arrival.”

AAON has quadrupled its cleaning staff, reconfigured workspaces for social distancing and adjusted policies to allow more paid time off for quarantines and illness.

People across the country have received treatment in a safer and more comfortable environment thanks to AAON’s “capable, well-developed sales channel” and Fields’ longtime associations in the industry.

After COVID-19 cases exploded in New York and temporary facilities became necessary, AAON sprang into action.

“A multitude of key players have my cell phone number,” says Fields, who has worked in the industry for more than 35 years and joined AAON as an elected director in 2015 after the sale of Texas AirSystems, of which he was part owner. 

AAON was approached by New York officials on March 29, and 13 days later, the company delivered 4,000 tons of air conditioning capacity for hospitals and COVID testing facilities.

“We are manufacturing HVAC systems that improve indoor air quality for the many applications that are now requiring it,” including nursing homes and schools, says Fields. 

“Our increased capacity and manufacturing efficiency have allowed us to prioritize COVID-19 related projects and rapidly ship them to our customers without any additional premium pricing.”

Indoor air quality features provided by AAON include high-efficiency air filtration and bipolar ionization for air disinfection. As of November, the company had manufactured 248 units for more than 70 COVID-related projects in 28 states and provinces.

Fields speaks with pride about AAON’s Norman Asbjornson Innovation Center Research and Development Laboratory, which went online in October 2019.

“This state-of-the-art, 134,000-square-foot facility allows us to speed up our product innovation and certification,” he says. “It the largest, most capable HVAC testing lab in the world.”

The laboratory “allows us to show customers firsthand the performance of AAON equipment at actual loading conditions, for HVAC systems up to 540 tons,” says Fields.

This year, AAON doubled the lab’s hours and added employees to allow for a seven-day-a-week operation. The company also redesigned its large commercial rooftop HVAC units this year to improve efficiency and flexibility.

“Even with COVID, we have continued to hire,” says Fields. “We remain optimistic that the year will end with modest revenue growth over 2019,” he says, as the company made $70 million in capital expenditure investments in 2020.