Ben Celani of High Life Farms: “Small details matter”

Small details matter. Avoid cutting corners and stay disciplined, because it all adds up to the big picture. If you ignore the details, you will see the negative compound interest. As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of […]

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Small details matter. Avoid cutting corners and stay disciplined, because it all adds up to the big picture. If you ignore the details, you will see the negative compound interest.

As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Celani.

Ben Celani is the Co-Founder of High Life Farms, a privately held, family-owned cannabis businesses with a portfolio that includes cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, in-house brands, brand partnerships, white labeling solutions and ownership stakes in numerous dispensaries. Ben manages HLF’s facility in Chesaning, Michigan and is focused on bringing approachable, friendly retail and lifestyle experiences that are designed to meet and surpass consumers’ expectations and bring the best brands to the most important markets.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The goal for my career path has always been to lean in to my passions. While attending school, an opportunity came my way to enter the cannabis space and I didn’t hesitate to jump in. Knowing hands-on learning was key for my growth in the industry, I decided to leave school to put all of my focus into cannabis and join the frontline workforce of the industry. My love for the plant goes way back, but the experience I had working in dispensaries and growing on farms as a standard employee enhanced my interest in the space and confirmed my passion for this career, furthering my desire to add value to this industry.

Can you tell us a bit about your family business and your role in it?

High Life Farms is a family-owned, high-quality cannabis company with a portfolio that includes cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, in-house brands, brand partnerships, white labeling solutions and ownership stakes in numerous dispensaries. Our family never had an official conversation to figure out where everybody’s roles were going to fit in — we all just naturally pursued our passions and inherent skills, which has defined our focus at the company.

My specific role is managing cultivation and I operate out of our facility in Michigan, while my brother Vinnie manages our facilities in California. I’ve worked various cultivation jobs in Michigan, California and Colorado, experiences that drive my ability to build up our whole cultivation department at High Life Farms. My daily focus is to make sure we’re growing the ideal strains and that our plants are produced efficiently to create the highest quality products.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Our facility was originally a milk factory from the sixties, so it was wild to step into the dead building with dirt floors and basically no power for the first time in 2017. The cannabis industry hadn’t really started in Michigan, and as we walked through the building, we kept thinking, “What did we get ourselves into here…” Fast forward to today — our facility looks brand new and the energy is amazing. It really proves that you don’t need to start with new, fancy buildings to make a great company, and it’s ok to build things out slowly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on at High Life Farms, I tasked a new harvest manager with vacuum sealing pounds of cannabis flower. We didn’t walk through it completely together, and when I eventually went to check on him, I found that he had sealed it into dense rocks, smaller than a football. All the moisture in the oil was solidified into a brick that wouldn’t break. Although it was pretty funny, 20–30 pounds of our product had been destroyed in the process. It was definitely a lesson in making sure that everyone knows how to do the jobs they are tasked with and that I’m available to mentor when needed.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The fact that we’re a large, self-funded, family owned and operated business with a small management staff is something pretty unique to our industry, and it makes us a really tight group of people. We are also all about success-fueled growth, which is why we didn’t start off with an 80 million dollars facility. It started with one grow, and our successes spurred re-investment in new technologies, which led to building our facilities out further, and so on. Rather than taking capital investments, we took our time, piece by piece, to create what we are so proud of today.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We just completed the build-out of our new 10k sq. ft. vegitative greenhouse, which significantly increases our flowering capabilities. This will bring around 10–15 new jobs to our department with cultivation only. Additionally, we are creating and taking on multiple new brands and additional product SKUs that will provide our consumers a variety of options for how they enjoy their experience. It’s something I’m very excited about, not only because we are growing and expanding our company, but we are also creating more jobs for the small community we live in.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

100% my dad. He’s an incredibly hardworking person and very genuine, which is part of why our company is the way it is. He taught us that the proof is in the pudding and hard work will always pay off. It’s something that we put forward in this company — putting our best foot forward. His lessons have motivated me to be the best I can be.

My dad also has an amazing ability to adapt and accept new business opportunities. He’s very old school and cannabis wasn’t necessarily an interest at first, but as we got into it together, he began to understand the growth of this industry. His willingness to accept cannabis and learn with us is something I truly admire and appreciate about his character.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The products we create from the cannabis plant not only serve our adult-use market, but also serve medical patients with chronic pain or other conditions. It’s a great feeling knowing that we can help improve quality of life while also providing fun products to enjoy. As we continue to grow our business, we are paving the way for this incredible industry, creating many new jobs along the way.

I also have to give a major shoutout to the town of Chesaning, MI that supports us in so many ways. Without them, we wouldn’t exist, so a big mission for us is to give back in multiple ways, such as a Thanksgiving giveaway, adopting highways, donating to food banks/clothing banks and many other other causes within our small township.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main parts of our interview. How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?

For us, a distinguishing factor for a family business is how we work with each other. We may disagree at times, but at the end of the day, we’re still family and don’t have a problem working through whatever comes our way. We see it as an exemplifier of strength. Many cannabis companies have a variety of investor personalities and needs, however we can control our destiny based on partnerships and personnel that we truly enjoy working with.

In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family owned businesses have?

Being family, we know we’re all aligned on the same goals. When you always have partners on your side, it makes it easier to run the company and make the best decisions. You also get the added benefit of decades of earned trust that you may have to assume in a “stranger arrangement” in many cannabis deals.

What are the unique drawbacks or blindspots that family owned businesses have?

If you are having personal issues with a family member, it could potentially bleed over into the business side. Having said that, I think there are actually less blind spots than other businesses because you know the people so well. When that’s the case, it becomes easier to see the reality of things.

What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?

Don’t let the petty stuff get in the way of making good decisions and ensure that you trust your family members to be good partners. You could either not get along with your family members or you could use it to your advantage and make a trustworthy team. You need to be careful when jumping in with people you are close to and make sure everyone’s intentions are aligned.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?

In cannabis, it’s so important to build up your team. It’s helpful to let your employees know how they’re influencing the end results from a company perspective. Every employee should be seen as an essential contribution to an overall organizational goal.

Also, at least at the start, make sure that leaders are on the ground, or in my case in the facility, not just envisioning how things are going to run, but actively participating. I think that’s ultimately going to make you the most successful.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?

To me, leadership means that you are never too cool to do any task. A leader should always be willing to build everybody up from the ground floor to ultimately be better than themselves. They are also looking for ways to execute — not ways to back out. High Life Farms’ culture has had moments where senior leaders packed fulfillment boxes until 4am. We are committed to execution and our leaders own that, which is a part of our cultural fabric for success.

Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Patience. It took us years of slow and steady work to build High Life Farms. It’s ok to take your time and focus on doing things the right way and with fiscal responsibility.
  2. Old fashioned hard work. Although it sounds basic, there is no substitute to putting your head down and working hard. It will never let you down.
  3. Scrappiness. Look for ways to get things done, even when you need to find unlikely methods. There are millions of companies willing to sell the newest thing. At the end of the day, it’s all about execution and that you achieve the goals that you intended.
  4. Know how to delegate. Give others the tools to thrive so that you don’t have to be constantly involved. If you put trust in people, it will build a sense of community and mutual respect. We no longer believe that the stranger from California or Colorado is the ultimate expert on cannabis.
  5. Small details matter. Avoid cutting corners and stay disciplined, because it all adds up to the big picture. If you ignore the details, you will see the negative compound interest.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad always said, “Never be afraid to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you.” It can be intimidating at times to be in an office with so many intelligent and hardworking people, but it ultimately is what spurs my growth, personally and professionally. I learn so much from the people I surround myself with. If you’re unwilling to accept outside thought, feedback or expertise from others, you will never be able to successfully improve your environment, operations or products.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a meal with Mike Tyson. His level of intensity is something I admire, not to mention the incredible stories he must have. In regards to cannabis, I think Mike has done a great job of normalizing the industry and making it mainstream in a very cool way. He’s had multiple entrepreneurial efforts for various cannabis companies and I think someone of his clout is a great representative of the benefits that the industry provides to customers across the spectrum.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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 would like to encourage the cannabis industry to invest in the communities they serve. It is so important to take care of the locations where you operate and help build up the people who live there. These communities aid the production that we provide, so it’s an obligation that we provide great elements of stewardship to give back in ways that show our appreciation. And it’s not only in the short term via donations. We are always proactively looking for ways to better our communities and the people we work with. If we can all prop each other up, our capacity for greatness will always increase.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find us on Instagram (California, Michigan and Chief Solventless), Facebook (California and Michigan), Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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