Employee-centric Focus to Fast Growth with Jill Ellsworth at Willow Industries

Leaders often believe company success comes down to how well you can deliver value to your customers. However, that is not everything. In fact, having an employee-centric focus is required to scale your business. Today’s guest is Jill Ellsworth, Founder & CEO at Willow Industries. Inc Magazine ranked her company #205 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. Willow Industries provides cutting-edge technology for post-harvest microbial decontamination in cannabis. Jill shares about having an employee-centric focus and its impact on company growth. She gives you the core strategies that support the employee-centric focus they have adopted.

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Jill Ellsworth: The Transcript

About: Fueled by her passion for innovation and dedication to health, Jill has made a career of creating solutions for better living. Prior to launching Willow Industries in 2015, Jill founded Vibrant Earth Juices (VEJ), a Santa Barbara-based cold-pressed organic juice company. Named Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Emerging Business in 2013, Jill became passionate about pasteurization techniques, employing High-Pressure Processing (HPP) to prevent microbial growth and increase the shelf-life and freshness for her juice line. Later, Jill parlayed VEJ into a beverage distribution company, helping place various alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in Whole Foods, King Soopers, Natural Grocers, yoga studios, coffee shops, and other healthy eating establishments. Jill, who serves on the Cannabis Health and Safety Advisory Committee for the City of Denver, as well as the Technical Advisory Committee for the Cannabis Certification Council, is a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist. She holds an MS in Nutrition, Dietetics, & Food Science, a BA in Communications and a BS in Nutrition from California State University, Northridge and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Jill Ellsworth: [00:00:00] We put our employees first, I put my employees first for the reason that happy, healthy, strong employees generate a fast-growth company. Just like you said, we have happy employees. Therefore we have great customers.

Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: What does it take to grow your business fast? Well, I think it’s probably different than what you think when you have a fast-growth company. One of the most common factors across that is not just because they have a good idea, not just because they have the right timing, because they’ve been able to create a team of people that are moving together. They’re able to execute. They’re able to truly be aligned around this. And there’s no way that you can do that without being an Employee-centric focus. And so that is the topic of today’s interview today. I’ve had a lot of [00:01:00] conversations with founder CEOs across all of the fast-growth companies, and I love to be able to continue this conversation on an Employee-centric focus. It’s something we have all the time, but this is what you’re going to get a little bit different today, which I’ll share with you. Our special guest is the founder of Willow Industries. She is Jill Ellsworth and they were number 205 on the Inc list really astronomical growth. And she talks about why Employee-centric focus is so important to the success of their company.

She talked about where that shifted inside her leadership style. So you’ll learn from that too. But what you really want to take away from today’s episode is how do you look at your employees? Are they the most important aspect to growth? Are they the asset that makes everything else work or are they just people that come to work and get some stuff done? Well, and in today’s episode, we talk about Employee-centric focus, the, the common theme around this is you’ve got to look at your own leadership style and be willing to say, does it work with me moving forward? And if you, your style is about to go through a change, you are feeling a little bit uncertain. You’re not quite sure how to move forward. Then I’d love to have a conversation with [00:02:00] you about your leadership style and about what’s really missing inside of where you are today and where you want to be. As a leader, I work with a lot of founders, CEOs, and their teams to help them grow faster and help them be stronger leaders. And that’s really the focus of everything I do as an executive coach.

If you want to have that conversation with me, just as a preamble, to getting to know each other and really allowing me to support you and help you through whatever you’re facing. I’d love to do that. Now. All you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com and go to schedule your call and it will be happening right there magically. When you think about your own journey as a leader, make sure you know what your next step is. I want to help you get there. Just going to GeneHammett.com and scheduling a call. Now here’s the interview with Jill.

How are you?

Jill Ellsworth: I’m great. How are you?

Gene Hammett: Fantastic. Excited to have you here on the podcast.

Jill Ellsworth: Thank you for having me super excited to be chatting with you.

Gene Hammett: Well, we’re going to dive into the big theme today, which is about the Employee-centric focus of a company. Before we get there. Tell us about your company Willow Industries.

Jill Ellsworth: Of course. So here at Willow, [00:03:00] we are based at the cannabis industry and what we did was invent a technology to clean cannabis. And I know that sounds a bit crazy and wild, but essentially all cannabis has mold has pathogens. And so we invented a technology using ozone gas. In these, in these sealed chambers that essentially cleans finished flower. So the flower that you see on the dispensary at bean, from mold yeast, mildew, e-coli salmonella, ensuring that cultivators are passing state testing before they’re able to sell it. But most importantly, consumer safety, your product is safe before you consume it.

Gene Hammett: I don’t know much about this market, but I know that it’s been growing. It’s been something where, you know, every state’s got different processes of legal versus, you know, marijuana usage and recreational usage. But I’d imagine the demand for the product is, you know, driving the growth of your own business.

Jill Ellsworth: Absolutely. What’s interesting, as we were very early, I started this business six years ago when no one was having these sort of conversations and it took a [00:04:00] really long time for the industries to understand the need for this type of technology. I mean, it’s used widely in food and beverage. Like you go to the grocery store, you know, your milk is safe and it’s gone through a step to ensure e-coli isn’t in it. Well, I mean, this was so early for cannabis and it’s been wonderful to see a adoption. And that’s what we’re seeing across the US and in Canada and in international markets.

Gene Hammett: Well, thanks for keeping us safe for all those that do partake in cannabis that I made her in Atlanta. Georgia is not legal if it was, I don’t think I would even be chasing it down. Cause it’s just not my thing. But I will say I really do respect the innovation that you brought. And I know that a fast-growth company is so much more than just an idea. There’s, there’s a team around this and I’ve never met an entrepreneur that wasn’t willing to say. I am where I am today because I created a team that we have today. Is that similar to your thoughts about your team?

Jill Ellsworth: Absolutely. I would never be able to be in this place now without the team, I mean, in the beginning, sure. It was me alone [00:05:00] and that did, you know, I was only able to take it so far. And then I got to hire some amazing people. And now we have an incredible team across the country that, that really runs the business and I am there to support them.

Gene Hammett: Yeah. Well, that’s the way it should be. We’re going to focus on this big topic today. Employee-centric Focus. What does that mean to you?

Jill Ellsworth: It means that we put our employees. I put my employees first, for the reason that happy, healthy, strong employees generate a fast-growth company. Just like you said, we have happy employees. Therefore we have great customers.

Gene Hammett: I know this concept, but I think a lot of people think it should be a little bit different. I have a, what I call the impossible question. As a leader of a fast-growth company, what’s more important employees or customers.

Jill Ellsworth: You know, if you’re in customer was listening and you’re like, well, of course, it’s customers, but really the answer is employees. Again, my employees have incredible relationships with customers all across the country and in Canada, because they are [00:06:00] in a very supported work environment where they know that their needs are being taken care of. They’re heard, they’re seen, and that in turn results in a happy, happy workplace and a happy employee. And so we have good customers because of them.

Gene Hammett: Well, that’s the way it should be. I mean, Richard Branson is famous for, you know, let take care of your employees. They’ll take care of your customers. The opposite of that is Jeff Bezos, which he’s in the news. It seems like daily with something going on in one of his plants, most of his employees are probably early paid and it’s a very different thing there because they say that they’re customer-focused to a fault. Did you, are you familiar with Richard Branson’s quote on that?

Jill Ellsworth: Absolutely. Yes. Having grown up as an entrepreneur and always kind of strive to, to own my own business. I’ve read all the books about all the entrepreneurs and that one really stuck with me. So when I was building Willow and hiring employees, that was the focus of you know, of my vision and really of the mission.

Gene Hammett: You said this six years ago, when you [00:07:00] started the company, you’re about 20 employees. Now looking back over this. Has this taken different kind of strategies or focus to, to be able to make this a part of your entire company strategy?

Jill Ellsworth: Yeah, I, but you know, in the beginning, it’s really hard to, to focus on, I think your end goal, which is to be an employee-centric company, in the beginning, it’s like you and a couple people just grinding and hoping to like, you know, get some traction and then once you do, you know, I’ve always come from the very like customer-centric, like good customer service, really supporting our customer. And then I was realizing as my role was changing and I was bringing in a team to support that. It was like, well, this makes sense. Now my focus is my employees and it’s less about me being in front of the customers and them. And so I can put a lot of my energy into, you know, ensuring that this is a great workplace.

Gene Hammett: I don’t know if anything specific happened for you to make that switch. Can you go back and think about it and share with us? What, what really [00:08:00] got you to focus from the customers to employees?

Jill Ellsworth: I would say it was, you know, I would say was hiring some key roles and realizing I got a, you know, I got a great hire and I was like, well, how can I ensure that I’m keeping these employees. And that they aren’t leaving because of X, Y, and Z. So I really started to look at, you know, how can I maintain employees and, and keep them in the fold and what can I do? And, and so, as they were taking customers off my plate, I started to realize, well, I still have this, you know, overwhelming the desire to take care of dot, dot, dot. And it was employees.

Commentary: Keeping employees, it’s something Jill just mentioned. And I want to make sure that you understand that the key to keeping employees. Is not about paying them more, but it’s about creating a space for them to feel appreciated at work and for them to have the kind of leadership that they deserve. Now, people don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers and you may have heard this before, but it [00:09:00] really is true because people get so frustrated, not being understood, not feeling appreciated across their journey, not getting the feedback they need to. And too many managers are just doing the bare minimum. It takes, they’re really focused on the wrong things. So I’m calling that to the mat right now because I really to see this is a big problem across many organizations, including fast-growth companies, as they continue to scale a lot of the bad habits that happen at the top leadership level cascade down throughout the organization. And that’s a problem you want to make sure that you are keeping employees well, you want to make sure your leadership is keeping up with the times. So keep listening into the podcast if I can help you in any way, make sure you let me know now back to Jill.

Gene Hammett: I love the fact that it was all centered around keeping employees because when you think about our job as leaders, one of the hardest things is to do is too important to someone that leaves too early. We’ve all had it happen. Yeah, it really does kind of break our heart sometimes cause, and it’s a very different experience than having to let someone go. When you think about your own journey as a leader, what do you think about [00:10:00] makes you the best leader that you need to be?

Jill Ellsworth: Well, I would say first and foremost, I have executive coaching, which really helps me dig into, you know, some of my own issues and work through those and make sure those aren’t projected into the organization. But I also. I, I would say I’m very empathetic and I listen and I, you know, I have a, I’m very understanding. And so not that I’m any sort of a pushover, but that I really understand and employees, and, you know, I want to ensure that this organization is, is a healthy one and happy one. And I know I keep going back to that, but like when my employees come into the office, I want to make sure it’s a good place for them to be. We actually don’t do work from home. Everyone works from our offices here in Denver and across the country. And that’s made a big difference in how we’ve grown together over the past, you know, kind of tumultuous few years.

Gene Hammett: So you didn’t have to shut down at all through the pandemic?

Jill Ellsworth: Well, so we were exempt because we’re cannabis and that was [00:11:00] exempt in Colorado. And, you know, we were building systems and ensuring our systems got into the fields and to cultivators because, you know, people are still buying weed during this time. So, some of our team worked from home for the first couple of months when COVID, you know, really was a hit at the beginning of March of 2020, but then we all came back together in the summer of 2020. We’ve been working here at our offices ever since.

Gene Hammett: Now, I know a lot of companies aren’t able to do that because they’re still not working on offices together. Do you feel like that’s one of your advantages that you have been able to stay together in the office throughout all this?

Jill Ellsworth: I think it’s been an incredible advantage. I feel lucky. I feel blessed that we can do this. I mean, we’ve certainly taken all the safety protocols. We have a lot of space. Everyone has their own area we’re very, very aware of the risk, but it’s really given us the opportunity to continue to, you know, brainstorm and, and have these impromptu innovation meetings and all the things that has kept us on this fast growth track.

Gene Hammett: I wanna try something different with you. Jill, I have had this conversation quite a bit. I want [00:12:00] to give you a speed round.

Jill Ellsworth: Okay.

Gene Hammett: And you can say one to two sentences, but there’s meant to be pretty quick. You have for this little game?

Jill Ellsworth: I’m on. I’m in.

Gene Hammett: Alright. So the topic is kind of like a game show. This is employee-centric focus, but there’s certain areas that, which that probably play a different way of strategy or how you look at it. So I’m going to name a couple of them and you tell me how it works. So recognition.

Jill Ellsworth: When anyone closes a lease. We have a big gong that we bang slack channel, congrats, all the things. So we make sure that each person is awarded based on, you know, some of the great stuff they bring into the office, and then we, you know, we, we always recognize someone that does a great job.

Gene Hammett: And what about rewards where you actually doing something financially or giving them something extra beyond recognition?

Jill Ellsworth: Well, we have a Halloween costume contest this week and you will be rewarded with money for the best costume we also, we, we definitely focus on team building and, you know, we’ll do impromptu golf, golf day, or [00:13:00] go bowling so we’re definitely trying to reward the team for, you know, the great effort they’re making.

Gene Hammett: Now. This one might be a little bit harder for you, but employees centric focus with empowering employees. What does that look like?

Jill Ellsworth: I would definitely say we empower employees by allowing them. You know, to make decisions on their own that are going to support the company. So for instance you know, my manufacturing team, we let them make decisions that they don’t have to run up the chain that, that, you know, I would think they probably should, but we say, listen, you make these decisions. We trust that you’re looking at this business from an owner’s perspective and we’re giving you those skis because we believe in you.

Gene Hammett: A few more here on my list, transparency.

Jill Ellsworth: We’re very transparent. We have, we have monthly Willow meetings where the whole team comes together and I actually provide finances to the team. I provide current revenue, projected revenue monthly recurring revenue, just so the team knows where we are and like how those, those results are more [00:14:00] tangible to them. Okay. So, you know, this is where we need to be to hit revenue. And so you can actually. And I feel like that that provides a little more ownership too.

Commentary: Jill was just talking about transparency. Let me give you more than just the financial transparency, which is common. You want to make sure you have a level of transparency where people really talking about the things that need to be talked about. There aren’t the avoidance of difficult conversations. I find this is a really popular amongst leaders are going fast. There’s a lot of chaos. They’ll avoid things hoping that they’ll work themselves out. Well, most of the time they don’t, they actually just get worse. And so when you create the kind of transparency, it goes both ways. Two-way street is the way I say it. You have to be transparent with them. They have to be willing to be transparent with you because what you really want is an employee to be able to say, you know what? I don’t feel like you showed up to the meeting completely prepared today. And let me make sure you do that more often, or let me help you do that, or what can I do to help you? You want to make sure that they’re comfortable to call you out because that’s where both of you grow. This kind of transparency is very important across companies when they grow up, it’s much more [00:15:00] than just financial transparency as Jill talked about, even though that’s a good place to start back to Jill.

Gene Hammett: Perfect, inclusion.

Jill Ellsworth: Inclusion. I mean, you know, we certainly us being a small team. We certainly focus on this. We have some initiatives coming out soon, but. I would say we’re very inclusive. It’s hard to hard to really like give good examples here. But we, we definitely are, you know, we, I would say we, we are,

Gene Hammett: I’ll help you because I think this has a lot of meetings inside of our organizations. When I look at inclusion, I look at it as when you had to define the values of the company, you included others into that process. You didn’t just lock yourself away and give them the values that the company had. Is that fair to say?

Jill Ellsworth: That it’s fair. And actually thank you Gene for kinda of guiding me there. Yes. I actually put together what I thought was a good list of values and I sent them out to a lot of my executives and I said, give me your thoughts, feedback. I want to hear what if these are in line with who we are.

Gene Hammett: So, I’m going to break from our little rapid-fire here because I don’t get a chance [00:16:00] to do this very much, but this is a very common topic here on the podcast because I think it is so important. I keep having it on because I want more people to understand the power of being employee-centric or really putting employees first. We were talking about values. And I know you had said to me before we hit the recorder on it’s like, you know, it was a hard process for us to come up. Why was it so hard for you to come up with your values for the company?

Jill Ellsworth: We really have to dig deep, you really have to, you really have to go internal and think, you know, what do I stand for? What does this company stand for? And sometimes those words and adjectives don’t to you right away. And so then you have. Start thinking about, okay, what, what do we actually do? Okay. We provide systems for consumer safety for cultivators. Okay. But what does that actually look like? And so you have to like start peeling back the layers and to actually get to the fundamentals of the values. And that was a that was a challenging exercise, but in the end, it was amazing. And she was like, wow, this is great.

Gene Hammett: Are they part of your everyday conversation across the [00:17:00] organization, meaning slack channels and recognition and rewards and all that’s stuff.

Jill Ellsworth: I certainly try, you know, I know the day to day, like it’s crazy and busy and, and all of the things happen, but I certainly try to keep it the forefront. It’s, you know, that’s actually a good reminder.

Gene Hammett: Well, I want to start wrapping up here. We’ve been talking about employee-centric focus. I took you down a few different paths. What have we not talked about that you feel like is important in this topic?

Jill Ellsworth: Well, I, you know, I think some of the employee’s centric perks, I mean, we give stock options. We pay for a hundred percent of their health insurance plus their dependents. You know, we really focus on paid time off and, you know, are you, do you need some mental health days? My door’s always open and my employees really know that if something’s going wrong, they can come in here and they can talk to me and they can be real about it. So I. Along with like being employee-centric. There’s a lot of other things that go along with that. And I, I, I believe we have a great team and our team really likes one another. And again, we’re a small smallish team, [00:18:00] but that was very thoughtful and purposeful when hiring it’s like, will this be a good fit for the organization?

Gene Hammett: Well, I appreciate you ending on that because I think that anytime you, you have this idea of being Employee-centric you got to make sure you protect that bringing in right people, you get one toxic person and it can actually cause a lot of habits. Most people don’t get it, especially if that toxic person happens to be a high performer. Cause that happens sometimes. And it really is a Testament to you to, to put this first with only 20 employees. But that’s one reason why I believe you’re growing so fast. So thank you for being here Jill.

Jill Ellsworth: Oh, thank you so much. This is a great fun conversation.

Gene Hammett: My job is to help you figure out how to improve as a leader in these conversations with people like Jill will help you understand that like putting people first is common sense to me, but I know it, it really is against what most people teach you. I’ve had people literally say to my face that it has to be customer first, always. And today’s episode was really to help you see what employee-centric focused looks like inside of an organization. What Jill, how she thinks about it, how she’s delivered [00:19:00] upon this promised. And hopefully, you’ve learned a lot from it.

If you’re curious about your next step as a leader, want to be an extraordinary leader. I want to help you do that. I have a few spots in my schedule that I’d love to give you if you want to have those conversations, just go toGeneHammett.com and schedule your call. It’ll be worth it. It’s not a sales pitch. I promise, but we will help you become the leader that you want to be. You need to be for your team.

When you think of growth and you think of culture, think of Growth Think Tank as always. Lead with courage.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.




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