As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Driessen.
Chris Driessen was promoted to President and CEO of SLANG Worldwide in 2020, after having served as the Company’s U.S. President with responsibility for the overall performance of the organization in its primary markets. Mr. Driessen first joined SLANG predecessor company and cannabis industry pioneer Organa Brands in 2014. His leadership has been instrumental in creating business processes that streamline efficiency, drive dramatic revenue gains and foster lasting, mutually-profitable relationships with the largest names in the marijuana industry.
Mr. Driessen previously held sales and operational leadership roles in the information technology and hotel sectors, including several Fortune 500 companies. [Outside the office, he can be found spending time with his wife and three children, hoarding airline miles, and cooking what some might call the best BBQ in America.] Mr. Driessen has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism (Public Relations focus) from Texas Tech University and the University of North Texas.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I worked in hospitality sales and sales leadership positions for a long time. From there, I went into technology sales, which is a fancy way to say, I sold copiers and led sales teams. Both of those industries teach you two very different paths of selling. Hospitality sales are all about the guest experience and evoking emotions. Technology sales, particularly copier sales, is a solution-oriented business. Everybody has a copier, and nobody wants to talk about the copier until it breaks. It’s a very numbers-oriented game, and your success depends on how much contact you make with customers.
I learned from those experiences how to build systems; how to make them measurable; how to clearly define their objectives and how to measure success.
My entry into the cannabis industry was happenstance. I had a friend who was one of the founders of Organa Brands. We were both living in Vail, CO — skiing a lot more than working, and one day he said, “Hey, I’m going to get into cannabis. You should come and do this with me.” This was around 2009.
My wife was vehemently against it. She’s a high school teacher and comes from a very conservative Christian family from Texas. She said, “Absolutely not!” I can understand her reasons. We were doing pretty well, selling copiers, making six figures. We just had a kid, and we were about to have another. She didn’t understand yet why I would want to give this all up. On top of this, cannabis was illegal at the time. I didn’t have the most convincing argument to come back with.
Then in November of 2012, Colorado voted to approve recreational cannabis.. Eventually, I met my friend’s other partners at Organa brands and went through an interview process where they ultimately decided they couldn’t afford to pay me at that time. I came back to them and said “Here’s the reason you can’t afford NOT to have me on board. You don’t have systems, a clearly defined strategy, and you haven’t set goals.”
So they asked me to lead a sales meeting to see me in action. The print copier firm I was working with had distinct uniforms, basically an Adidas golf shirt with loud colors and a logo. I was wearing this uniform when I came to do the mock sales meeting. They had three sales reps at the time with basically no sales experience. They were selling weed because it was still new and fun at the time but I realized they had no formal training.
As I’m going through the sales meeting, about halfway through, I look up, and there’s this giant news camera filming us which I had no clue about. Their office was all made of glass so that you could see right in. They were doing a piece for a local news channel about the corporatization of cannabis. And, lo and behold that evening, I popped up on our local news. Pretty quickly after that, my boss at the copier company called and says, “Do you have anything to tell me?” And fortunately, he was somebody I had known from college, so it all ended up fine. But I did go back to Organa and say, hey, you better come back to me with an offer because I’m on borrowed time since I’ve been broadcasted all over the Denver Metro area. Ultimately, they did, and I set up many of their early systems, processes, set clear goals, provided accountability, and we took off like an absolute rocket ship!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Probably the most interesting process that we went through was the sale of Organa brands to SLANG. We were doing well. We were the most prominent cannabis brand in the country at the time. It was also the time in Canada when you saw the rise of the LPs (limited partnerships) freshly minted as federally legal. They were going public and having astronomical valuations. I had seen cannabis companies grow in the medical days in British Columbia and remembered thinking to myself, “I have friends that have nicer grows than this in their basement,” How are these companies worth more than American Airlines?!
Throughout 2018, we decided we’ll go public through this vehicle called Fire Cannabis. It wasn’t called SLANG then. We went public and got acquired the first time around at the end of January 2019; and had kind of that meteoric rise like many other companies did at the time. We were worth almost $2 billion market cap, which is a far cry from where we are today. It was just such an exciting process because we were business people and weed people. We didn’t know about capital markets or prospectuses and marketing deals and all these kinds of things. It was such a learning experience to go through what was required to go public and what was required to raise money more traditionally. It was kind of what all the ‘cool kids’ were doing. I’m very thankful for that experience.
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?
Organa has been licensing its brands all over since 2012. We were the first company to license our brands, the first to take branded products East to the Mississippi, and the first company to do an international licensing deal. We did it with a company out of Jamaica. This was in 2015, and cannabis is still a hot topic.
We set up a licensing deal in Jamaica because the government was looking at medical cannabis, then ultimately legalizing cannabis. We set up a launch party in Jamaica, and I got a call from my director of operations the night before, who was getting that lab up and going.
She calls me, bawling, and says, “Driessen, they’ve ruined it. We can’t have the launch party.” What happened was, we made a batch of oil and had it ready to fill cartridges. A local Jamaican had come in and put rum and honey into the beaker of oil and mixed it up together. It might not be obvious, but you can’t vape rum and honey. He said “it’s the medicine of God and that he did a Holy Sacrament.” He didn’t understand that we’re putting this into cartridges to vaporize this or that it had to be pure and made with specific steps.
Long story short, she and another gentleman worked all night and didn’t get any sleep. They made another batch of oil, and we ended up having a great launch party!
Cannabis means different things to different people, and if people don’t understand your process or don’t understand why you’re doing something, it can become a challenge. It’s important to make sure you’ve clearly articulated to everybody what the endgame is, what the steps are to get there, and why each step is essential.
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?
There are many, but the person who takes number one is on our current SLANG board of directors. His name is Robert Verdun. Bob came in when we were at a crossroads of “are we going public or not going public? Do we need to raise money? What are we going to do” Bob has been an incredibly successful business person. He spoke to me as a business person, mentor, and friend and said, “Hey, here’s what I did, when I sold my business, here’s what the good and the bad were, here’s more or less, some of the things you got to watch out for.”
For us, it was great because, at the time, we only had people on the other side of the table when we were selling Organa brands, just trying to get the best deal for SLANG that they could. And that’s their job, to negotiate a good deal for their side. But it became significant to have Bob on our side, to help navigate and provide some bridge capital to get us through that transaction. He’s an encyclopedia of business improvement information, and we are very grateful for his time.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I’ve made the mistake of thinking that I’m God’s gift to this job, which is why I’ve always been in the top three in the country for doing what I do. I thought, naturally, I’m going to form a team of people exactly like me. I wanted young, former athletes that are highly competitive and highly motivated, and we’re going to take this region by storm. For a very short time, we did just that. Then very quickly, I realized that we were all identifying with the same person. Having different genders on your team, having people from different backgrounds, and having a more well-rounded team that brings in a different set of perspectives will appeal to a much larger group rather than all of us that appeal to the exact same person.
That is kind of where it dawned on me that I was doing this wrong. If we all look just like me, talk like me, or do what I do, then we’re going to experience success in the same places where I did — and I’ve already done that. But by bringing in a more set of people with completely different backgrounds and having common goals and a shared process allowed us to cast a wider net — ultimately appealing to a broader and diverse group of people. That’s when we saw our success skyrocket. Fast forward now to SLANG — I think 30, maybe even 40 percent of our leadership is female.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
One, open your mind. I took a business class and the first question the teacher asked is, do you want to be king? Or do you want to be successful? He explained that as CEO, you have an incredible opportunity at that moment to decide what the culture, strategy, and goals are. If you want to be king, it can only be done your way, it can only be done with your people — when you say jump, everybody says how high. Everybody is serving you, not serving the business. However, if you want to be successful, surrounding yourself with a team of people regardless of their backgrounds is key — all the other adjectives that we put on people, whether it’s your skin color, your sexual orientation, your background — Who cares? The questions I ask myself are “Do you get the job done? Are you the best fit for the role?”
Surrounding yourself with a team of diverse people who will challenge you and by doing so, improve your business, is a heck of a lot more important than being surrounded by a bunch of people that just tell me yes and agree with whatever I say. Healthy conflict is one of the best possible things you can have within a business, whether that’s with your management team or your leadership team. It means that we trust each other enough to disagree and discuss why in a controlled manner. Talking it out will either change other people’s opinion or it’ll reaffirm the opinion you have. Most commonly, the answer is somewhere in the middle. But it starts by letting your guard down by saying hey, I don’t want to be king, I want to be successful.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Yeah, I’ll start with what I believe to be my highest payoff activities. I call them HPAs and I do them on a daily basis.
- Internal communication is so important. Whether that’s with your employees, people in your market, shareholders etc, you must be the chief communication officer particularly inside of your own walls.
- Set the strategy and reinforce it. I feel almost a bit like a parent of this organization because I repeat myself about a million times. Once we set a goal and a strategy, I make sure it’s ingrained throughout the company.
- Spending time in the market. Particularly in cannabis, some CEOs cannot tell me the first thing there is to know about cannabis. There could be a big capital markets guy, or a big private equity guy with a sharp, business mind, but they don’t really know the product. This doesn’t mean one has to consume it every day, but it’s so important to spend time with the product, whether it’s in the lab, grow, or the dispensary. I’m constantly going to dispensaries, I’m constantly trying new products. I’m constantly engaging with budtenders. I want to immerse myself in all things cannabis, because that’s our core. When I’m speaking to an employer, a shareholder or speaking at a conference, I’m speaking from a position of intelligence. I know I’ve been there, done it, and seen it. I can explain in very granular detail the cultivation and extraction process. Also, this breeds trust amongst your employees who know that I am not just a talking head telling everyone what to do without knowing the knitty gritty of the process.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
A lot of people think being the CEO means that you sit in an ivory tower in your big office and enjoy your second and third homes. But that’s not being a leader. As a CEO, you should aim to be a servant leader, somebody that gets down in the trenches and grinds and works with the people of the company right alongside them.
I think a lot of people think that we have $700 steak dinners, and fly around on private jets all the time. It is not always glamorous. Sometimes being a CEO is all the things that are not very glamorous at all. One is having very frank conversations with people when things aren’t going right or being there for your team when times are tough. A lot of people think that the CEO more or less makes the rules and then receives the riches but that, for me, is just being a bad leader and bad leaders make bad CEOs.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I was shocked by the intricate process of going public and how much time I was spending ON the business and not IN the business. Because I came from a very operational background with sales and marketing operations, moving into a public company CEO role was a big change. It requires such a larger set of skills around how you negotiate and interact with shareholders, how you build value for everyone. I came from being somebody that was waist deep in the business — everything from growing and processing, to selling, to business development. For me, the biggest difference was how little time I spent on cannabis versus how much time I spent communicating with different stakeholders that don’t touch the plant. As mentioned earlier, that’s why it is so important to me to make time to spend with the product.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
In short, no I don’t think everyone is cut out to be an executive. Here are some traits I think are necessary:
- Excellent communicator
- Hard worker
- Brutally honest
- You have to be prepared to be a bit lonely as a CEO — sometimes you’ll have to make hard decisions on your own.
You should definitely avoid being a CEO if you’re doing it for the glory/riches. It’s going to be short-lived, if that is the case. If you’re not committed in your beliefs, you should stay away from it as well. Confidence with believing in what you’re doing is important.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Number one, you have to be accessible. Grab a drink, grab a cup of coffee, etc. with your colleagues to chat and make time to listen to their concerns.
Second, creating a great work culture starts with hiring truly good people who are great at what they do. Sometimes you have to be courageous enough to get rid of the ‘bad apples’ or someone who isn’t adding value to the company anymore.
Lastly, you should always think about the company as ‘our’ company, not ‘my’ company.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We’ve helped make cannabis more accessible across the country, especially for patients. We have the oldest licenced c02 extraction lab in the country (o.open). We’ve helped to destigmatize the plant and make it more mainstream. And we want to continue to make it mainstream and bring that conversation to the public. One day cannabis is going to be legal everywhere and we’re going to look back on this and laugh.
Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Develop your own strategy.
- You were brought in for a reason. Put your own fingerprints on the business.
- Ask why are you here?
2. Build your team.
- Identify who the good apples are and make sure they feel comfortable and valued.
- You have to build the proper team that fosters loyalty — it’s not an army of one.
3. Set big goals.
- Make it visible, literally write it out on a board where all the company can see.
- Make sure everyone is clear on the goal.
4. Eliminate distraction and waste.
- Anything in your business that’s not providing value — get rid of it.
- Pluck the weeds out of your garden. Get rid of the bad apples.
- You must act and be a doer.
- This will build the culture in your workplace for your coworkers to do the same.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to inspire people to do simple things for other people. I like to live by this phrase “If you get a blessing, give a blessing.” Hold a door open for someone, buy someone a meal. It’s important to be an agent of good. Reach out to someone that you haven’t spoken to in a while, check on the people you love to make sure they’re okay. Check in on your coworkers to make sure that they are satisfied. It’s easy to get caught up in work and forget about the little things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Rapper/Entrepreneur Mike Jones said: ‘You don’t work, you don’t eat, you don’t grind, you don’t shine.’ When I had my first daughter, this really put things in perspective. I had to provide for my family or we literally couldn’t eat. It taught me to outwork, outperform, and provide, whether that’s in business or in life.