We sat down with Paul Benhaim, the CIO of Elixinol Global, a leading manufacturer of high-quality hemp oil extracts to talk about the challenges of a growing marketplace, and how to make sure your brand stands out in a crowd.
Amid a significant expansion, shifting marketplace perceptions about hemp and hemp-based products, along with the changing laws around cannabis, there remains the products and their health and wellbeing benefits to getting onto shelves.
What first attracted you to the cannabis/hemp industry, or least, this incarnation of it?
I was studying food and nutrition in Europe when I learnt about the benefits of essential fatty acids, and that hemp seeds contained these in a natural plant source. This led me to realise no one was promoting hemp as a food, mainly due to the public’s incorrect assumption that it was intoxicating. I chose to offer people examples of the highest quality hemp products, believing their experience would change their perception. 26 years later, this seems to be working.
What are the key ideas or concepts you’ve learned in the time with the company, specifically within the C-suite?
That leadership is more about leading by example, communication and specifically as my time as CEO, compliance in the Public Company arena.
What do you see as the most exciting developments in this industry?
There has been many excellent developments in this industry – including Donald Trump’s signing of the farm bill, companies such as Albertsons (Safeway) choosing to stock Elixinol Cannabidiol (CBD) products for more mainstream use, many children, adults and seniors receiving ongoing excellent experiences through the hemp plant and most recently the FDA committing to a process to help industry with the clarity larger CPG companies require to take the step and be involved in the fast-growing world of hemp.
What can you list as being your or Elixinol’s significant accomplishments this year?
This year Elixinol has, so far grown revenues PCP and QoQ. We announced a deal with RFI called ‘Infusion Strategies’. This is most likely going to be one of the most significant deals for Elixinol – when the FDA gives comfort to the kind of large scale multi-national CPG companies Elixinol is in communication with. We received a manufacturing license for our medical cannabis division, Nunyara.
Hemp Foods Australia’s products are being distributed in one of the two main supermarkets in Australia; our plant-based protein – frozen Hemp Burgers in Woolworths. We received our New York Processor Agreement, we completed a deal to invest $6 million cash in Pet Releaf – the US’s #1 brand of hemp CBD pet products that we exclusively supply, and we announced an $18 million supply contract to Pet Releaf a few months later. Elixinol Europe is finalising a deal with the second-largest German pharmacy distribution chain and finalised a co-branding deal that saw its products in all major Holland & Barrett UK high street locations.
We successfully navigated several complex regulatory compliance issues globally without any challenges. We moved away from our bulk supply focus to more branded products. We’re raising $50 million to further our growth, predominantly in the USA, with Europe and our majority ownership JV Elixinol Japan.
Is a role like yours one which has you learning new things all the time? What do you know now that you didn’t know before?
I have never stopped learning and hope I never will. I have learnt more things that I can communicate here, but they often come back to people, process and intent. To elaborate, ensuring there is integrity in our internal relationships with our people first, so that we may radiate that out to our customers and shareholders; to ensure there is an ongoing improvement in all processes – to not be stuck in the past, and to not be complacent when things are working – to constantly look for small step improvements; and our intention, vision and mission is constantly being remembered – the WHY of what we do – again, internally first, as that is where it all comes from.
Yours is a competitive marketplace and uniquely based on comparatively recent law changes in certain American states. What makes Elixinol stand out from the pack?
Elixinol was founded with an intention to make the best quality products, for the best end-user experience – through science and technology, using whole plant-based products as naturally as possible. This continues to ensure that, the educated consumers at least, recognise Elixinol as a pioneering brand. We were the first to bring out a Liposomal product, for example; a technology to allow improved bio-availability in a partly water-soluble form.
This has continued and we have developed several ongoing improvements and will continue to lead the industry with the tastiest, best bioavailability, water-solubility, flavour for each specific use that we can. We are also one of the few companies who own farms, extraction technology, laboratories, have strict GMP manufacturing with independent lab tests on every batch of products. So, from seed to shelf, we may manage the supply chain in the best possible way.
What strategies, marketing or otherwise, has Elixinol employed to make this happen?
There are many people ‘jumping on the wave’ of CBD right now. They want to get the cheapest products out to the market – even if they don’t help anyone, just to make money. That is not our goal. We have and will continue to communicate with the serious players in this industry about our high-quality products and do our best to keep them as cost-effective as possible. We have chosen to be a multi-channel seller: this means we sell not only our own brand, but we also manufacture private label, bulk and ingredients. In terms of marketing, we prefer to be an authentic company, so we instruct those we work with to communicate our message about what we have created, what we build today and what we dream for in this world: an inspiration for our low-cost, entry-powdered product CBD (create, build, dream).
The importance of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has been getting a lot of talk in recent years within the business sector. How important do you see EQ as being within an organisation?
In my opinion, this is not important, it is critical. Not just in business, but in life. In fact, when hiring or choosing people, I choose EQ as one of the highest priorities. How does this manifest in our day-to-day? Communication is probably the key here. For good EQ, communication without blame, with empathy and questions makes so much of the difference. Remembering we have two ears and one mouth, that is, the proportion we should listen, to how much we should speak. To recognise when one is moody, affected by personal issues is so helpful. Now, not everyone has the life experience or training to recognise these things as they happen, so having leaders who can recognise this in other members of the team and work with those experiences to bring out the best in them builds a team.
Has promoting or encouraging EQ in staff something you have found to be a challenge, and if so, how have you overcome this challenge?
I have promoted managers to bring training in methods such as Non-Violent Communication, Theory of Constraints and other similar methods. The challenge has been that the managers are often too busy to justify the time away from running a fast-growing business. Overcoming this is a journey, often of the experience of what happens without the knowledge of EQ. Indeed, I could have demanded them to drop what they are doing and focus on a learning experience they would have likely resented. Instead, I have taken the longer approach of allowing them to decide for themselves this is what they want – to make the choice for a higher EQ.
What does the future look like for Elixinol? What’s next?
The future of Elixinol is so exciting for me. We have finally reached a scale and maturity where we have farming, production, formulas, trusted branding, great relationships, a superb management team, excellent systems and a plethora of opportunities at our doorstep we are capable of meeting through our quality control systems and growth capacity. For now, it is all about the execution of our vision: to provide the best, highest quality hemp products to the market, via mainstream channels, through our trusted brand, based on science and technology, globally. Elixinol is and will continue to be a leading global hemp CBD brand.
ushdhanak.com presents this ‘Meet a CEO’ series.
Ush Dhanak is a qualified and certified Executive Coach, Emotional Intelligence Coach, Neuro Leadership and Mediation coach. She has worked with a variety of corporate clients ranging from the Australia Federal Police, Smeg Australia, as well as clients in hospitality and dental. An expert in Emotional Intelligence and how to improve it, she can be found at the link above.