The foundation of a successful business is the people behind it, and when you put your team together you need to create an environment that creates trust, which allows your team to perform best.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Yapp.
Jeff Yapp, chief executive officer of Golden Leaf Holdings, Inc., has amassed an impressive body of experience through decades of leading strategies for global corporations including Microsoft, Viacom and Fox. His multi-faceted expertise across a variety of industries is unmatched, bringing thoughtful and comprehensive leadership to Golden Leaf Holdings’ Chalice Farms, one of the top cannabis companies in the northwest with cultivation, production and retail operations in Oregon.
In 2004, he joined Viacom, where, as executive vice president of MTV Networks, he led MTV, VH1, CMT and Logo brands into new business and platforms that produced more than 200 million dollars in revenue. In four years, he grew the division from 15 million dollars to over 1.4 billion dollars. In 2009, in addition to his corporate positions, Yapp founded NXTM entertainment group and in 2013, Wutznxt, a multi-channel marketing and consulting firm.
Yapp graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and graduated with honors from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he holds a master’s degree in management. During his time with MTV, VH1, and CMT, he received two Emmy nominations as an executive producer for the film, “DALE,” the authorized true story of NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt. The film was the highest rated movie in CMT’s history. Yapp’s most significant source of pride is his wife Tamara and their seven children: Marlo, Kristine, Molly, Ryan, Kelli, CJ and Nolen, as well as his grandson, Nash.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey with your current company?
The journey has been incredibly challenging from the start. I officially joined the cannabis industry in late 2019. Shortly thereafter, Oregon was hit by several unforeseen challenges: a strict vape ban, the pandemic, a social justice movement, and devastating wildfires. First, the vape ban hit business hard, but once the ban lifted, we quickly found our stride. Next, we had COVID-19. We pivoted immediately to remote operations and did everything we could to be deemed “essential” and keep our stores open. We moved quickly to make customers and staff feel safe and ensure appropriate safety measures. Instead of pulling back, we invested in our business even further, because we saw the potential of cannabis and the opportunity to reach new consumers. As we were adjusting to our new pandemic protocols, we saw a social justice movement rock our nation, which brought on violence and rioting in Portland. Our stores were broken into multiple times through more than 100 nights of protests, and tourism and travel decreased dramatically. Shortly afterwards, Oregon wildfires hit the state and resulted in record-breaking damage, hugely impacting cannabis cultivation farms and production facilities. Despite all of that — we have grown our employee base up to 170+ and have set record-breaking sales quarters, which is a reflection of both the team we have built, as well as the customers and products that we offer our community.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Giving up has never been an option. The drive to continue and succeed comes from our team. We’ve transitioned from focusing on finances and numbers to focusing on the community that depends on us. If there is ever a question about our “why,” we go into our retail stores and look at our customers — they are a living manifestation of cannabis making a difference in their lives.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We couldn’t be happier with how things are going now. We’ve turned a corner and are incredibly pleased with our company’s overall performance. We’re happy that our investors have renewed confidence in us and that we’re able to continue educating our community about our products, all the while attracting new customers. It’s taken a different perspective than I anticipated to work in this industry as we work to balance the art of cultivation along with the science of the plant. We have great respect for the business discipline needed to succeed in financial leadership as a balance with the creativity needed in the art of cultivation.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company stands out because of the customer experience we offer at the retail level. We believe that our opportunity to succeed and grow is not only with current consumers, but with new consumers to this space. Cannabis can really help with things in our life in a holistic way, such as energy levels, sleep needs, stress and anxiety, etc., yet most of the population doesn’t have a relationship with these products. Each of our retail employees bring a different story to the company. Some have been using cannabis products for years and some are new to this industry. At the end of the day, when a customer walks in the door, our staff is there to connect, aid and help them find the exact product they are looking for. That direct connection is what sets our company apart from most retail experiences.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
One of the first mistakes I made when I started in this industry was assuming the business was straightforward and that my business experience would directly translate into cannabis. I didn’t have an understanding of the complexity of the agricultural piece of this business and the art that goes into running a great facility. We weren’t where we initially needed to be, and after recognizing that and putting more of an investment into our cultivation facility and staff, it’s a night and day difference.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Advice I received that I didn’t put much energy into was needing to position your company in the best way to drive up share prices. I’m glad I didn’t follow this advice directly, because I’ve watched companies fail with this mindset. If you run your business well, the rest will follow. We’ve divided the responsibilities within our company to divide managing the business and managing our investors, which has been incredibly valuable.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Vision. I have an ability to see and recognize things before others are able to do the same and clearly see A-to-Z quickly. This has helped me in every professional role. In my work with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, it was seeing the potential for an entirely new audience for ‘Star Wars’. I led our team into the reintroduction of the franchise, which became one of the most successful campaigns in the history of home entertainment. One of my greatest successes was introducing ‘Guitar Hero’ during my time with Viacom, which was turned down initially at least a dozen times yet grew to more than 5 billion dollars in its first year. In my current role, it’s the foresight to recognize that the future of cannabis will not be recreational, rather the next generation of health and wellness.
- Perseverance. We can all have great ideas, but if you don’t have the fortitude to see them through, they go nowhere. You really have to make it happen. This is exemplified by our current position with Golden Leaf Holdings. We were dealt what seemed like one of the most challenging years possible in 2020, and we were still able to produce incredible products, allow customers to have continued access to them, set record sales and invest in our team, cultivation and production operations.
- Compassion. To a fault of my own, if I can help, I will. Sometimes that quality bites me, but it’s how I’m wired. The best example of this is through my current team with Golden Leaf Holdings and Chalice Farms. I’ve worked with many talented people over the years and have always tried to build my network positively. My team by all definition shouldn’t be here — I created our executive team when I joined this organization. We have talents from some of the best in the business, many pulled from the worlds of technology, retail and entertainment.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One of the things that helps the cannabis space is the community that is has created. What I love about this more than any other industry is the combination of art and science in the cultivation and production operations. If you can continue to stay focused on the art, what it takes to grow high-quality flower and the folks that do this as an art, it’s renewing. If you focus on the business aspect singularly, you’ll inevitably burn out quickly. Regulatory environments, compliance requirements, weather relating to harvests — you can’t control any of that. Having a healthy respect for the art of what your business is producing is critical to not only your company’s success but your own mentality to thrive.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Not respecting cashflow. Cash is king and you need to spend every dollar like it’s your last. There is no such thing as a “free lunch” — the minute you take money from someone, the dynamic changes. You must show respect and discipline with your finances.
Spending too much time on “investability” — don’t chase transactions to chase your share price. Focus on your company’s value proposition to your customers. If you try to chase your share price, you’ll make mistakes on key fundamentals of your business. Earn the trust and respect from investors from the quality and consistency of your products.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The aspect of running a company that I find to be the most underestimated is the people behind the business and the team dynamics. How well does your team work together? How quickly can they accomplish required tasks and go above and beyond? The foundation of a high-functioning team is trust, and most companies do not spend enough time building that foundation.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- The truth of financial resources. Understanding the realities of your company’s financial situation is key, rather than what you hope it’s going to be. Look at what your bandwidth is financially and that should drive all your decisions.
- The importance of the team you build. The foundation of a successful business is the people behind it, and when you put your team together you need to create an environment that creates trust, which allows your team to perform best.
- The complexity and uncertainty surrounding regulations. Our state and federal framework allows the cannabis industry to grow, but it is constantly evolving and changing. Cannabis is one of the most highly tested and regulated consumer products, and local or federal compliance regulations can change quickly.
- Supply chain. Cannabis is rooted in agriculture and has a very immature supply chain. As a result, it can feel like you’re working in the agricultural market of the 1930s or 1940s. In looking at commodity-based products, they have developed sophisticated ways of managing the agricultural process, storage, transportation, etc. Because we have less than a decade of experience in the recreational cannabis market, our limited supply chain can result in massive swings of product availability and, subsequently, pricing. This inevitably trickles down to the retail level, but we’re learning more each year about how to manage this process more efficiently.
- Respect for the cannabis community. What you must love about this space is that the people here aren’t yet wired for this business. People who chose this industry for a profession are not the same as established industries and either have a mix of passion and love for the plant or are hoping to bank off this business. You really can’t define the community by those who are looking to make money, because there are many more people involved for the love of the plant. We are a business, but we’ve also learned to focus on the art of this plant — and that’s the secret to success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the cannabis movement will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. This industry is focused on positively impacting its communities, and I think that can be directed to help the homeless population nationally. I look at the challenges around the world facing homelessness, both chronic and borderline, and I think that our industry can go a long way to helping create positive, lasting change.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!