The Fumé team
All photos courtesy of Napa Valley Fumé unless otherwise noted

Before COVID-19 struck the U.S. in 2020, Napa Valley Fumé, a Lake County, Calif., outdoor cannabis cultivator and wholesale distributor with a growing portfolio of brands, hosted events such as an annual harvest-time, fully catered “garden party” for the company’s employees and their family members.

Fumé co-founder and CEO Eric Sklar recalls receiving kind words from employees’ family members at the second garden party in 2019. “I can’t count the number of people who came up to me who don’t work for us but who said, ‘My’—fill in the blank—‘brother,’ ‘son,’ ‘husband’—‘has never worked in a place as great as this, in terms of the culture and the way everybody treats each other,’” Sklar says.

The company’s get-togethers illustrate its leadership’s commitment to providing a familial atmosphere of its own. Pre-COVID-19, Fumé opened tabs and held open mics at a local bar, where Chief Operating Officer Elissa Hambrecht once sang The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.”

“I think everybody got a kick that I’m not a great singer, but I got up there and did it after a little bit of liquid courage,” says Hambrecht, who oversees human resources in her role. “Our driver for our distribution company—he is a professional musician—he plays covers, he plays jazz, he plays rock-and-roll—he absolutely was my accompaniment on ‘Rocky Raccoon.’”

The camaraderie on display at these events exemplifies Fumé leadership’s close relationship with its employees, an extension of the care the company provides in daily operations. The top-ranking company on Cannabis Business Times’ 2021 list of Best Cannabis Companies to Work For – Cultivation offers several perquisites, including healthcare benefits after 90 days, job postings that are circulated within the company before they’re advertised externally, and ensuring employees maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“It all starts with your vision for how you want to run your company and how you view the team members,” Sklar says. “Some people view team members as a commodity, as something you pay for and you get something for. That’s not how we view it. We start with a philosophy that we only want to work with people who share our values, which includes integrity, enthusiasm for what we’re doing, a commitment to quality, a commitment to community and each other.”

Fumé’s Master Grower Richard Derum, left, and Garden Manager Jordan Turnage walking alongside one of the company’s cannabis gardens.
Photos courtesy of Napa Valley Fumé

Cultivation & Music

Established in 2016, Fumé was the result of conversations Sklar had been having with co-founder Jake Kloberdanz for several years. Sklar and Kloberdanz hail from the wine industry, as does Hambrecht. (Kloberdanz is also founder and CEO of ONEHOPE Wine and, along with Sklar, a member of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association).

The Fumé team grows in three gardens that total one acre of production and will soon add another quarter-acre for the 2021 growing season. The company employs 34 employees—12 in cultivation, nine in processing, eight in distribution and five in management. About five or six seasonal workers prune plants in the summer months, and Fumé contracts roughly 20 to 25 seasonal hires for harvest. (The workers who prune often return for harvest.)

There’s a sense of adventure that comes with working in Fumé’s gardens, says Jordan Turnage, one of the company’s two garden managers.

“It’ll go from working in cold raining weather, building up a nursery and monitoring seedlings, amending holes prepping for transplanting, to working in hot, sunny days pruning, hanging trellising … feeding, doing bug checks, maintaining irrigation lines and watering when needed,” Turnage says.

Employees work to produce Fumé’s LAKE GRADE flower and pre-rolls, a brand that Hambrecht notes “represents high-potency, sun-grown, real authenticity in terms of strains and experience.”

In April 2021, the company will launch its flagship brand fumé, which will offer luxury flower and pre-rolls. “It’s going to be in beautiful packaging that is all glass and paper, no plastic,” Hambrecht says.

The company’s upcoming vaporizer cartridge line, Symphony, set to launch this fall, reflects the team members’ passion for music, something they share together at work.

“We have a guy in the trim room who’s just a mad punk-rock guy,” Hambrecht says. “During harvest, he was working in the gardens, and at lunch, he’d pull out his guitar, and everybody would start singing. Some of it was head-banger, some of it was rock-and-roll, some of it was bluegrass.”

Fumé COO Elissa Hambrecht says the company’s LAKE GRADE brand “represents high-potency, sun-grown, real authenticity in terms of strains and experience.”
Photos courtesy of Napa Valley Fumé

Hiring with Intention

The principles behind hiring at Fumé boil down to some basics. “One of our initial value statements was that we will only work with people that share our values, integrity, commitment to value and quality,” Sklar says. In addition, employees are required to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

When it comes to wages, benefits and perks offered by employers in Lake County, Hambrecht says “the bar is low.” Despite having a comparable population size to Tehama and San Benito counties—two California counties with a roughly 2,000-population differential to Lake County’s approximate 64,400 people—Lake County had lower payroll figures in 2018, according to census.gov.

In addition, between 2015 and 2019, Lake County’s median household income was $47,040, and the per capita income was $27,362, according to census.gov. That compares to respective figures of $75,235 and $36,955 for California, and $62,843 and $34,103 for the U.S.

“California just updated the minimum-wage requirements,” says Hambrecht. “Of course, as the head of HR, I have to make sure we’re compliant. We’re way above those.” The business does not pay any entry-level employees less than $15 an hour, she says. (California’s minimum wage is set to increase to $15 an hour for all businesses by 2023.)

Fumé also offers healthcare benefits to its employees. “Even if you’re an hourly employee, at your 90-day anniversary, we allow you to buy into our healthcare benefits program,” Hambrecht says. “Most of [our employees] have never had insurance. That’s no joke. It’s really sad that that’s where we are, but that is a huge perk to people that our company will offer you benefits ....”

The company plans to hire more people in 2021, including a few to cultivate cannabis on the new quarter-acre garden in Lake County. Then, when the company opens its first indoor grow, complete with cultivation, trimming and inventory space, in Napa County’s American Canyon, just north of Lake County, it will likely employ at least 15 to 20 more people. With a conditional-use permit hearing set with the city for the end of January, Hambrecht says she expects that facility to open in about a year.

Fumé master grower Richard Derum
Photos courtesy of Napa Valley Fumé

Climbing the Ladder

Fumé promotes from within, gauging employees’ interest in job opportunities before posting open positions outside of the company.

Sklar highlights Fumé’s 360-degree performance reviews, where employees are evaluated by several people within the company, including themselves. “It’s fundamental because dignity and respect and compassion are a two-way street,” he says.

Fumé has hired people in the past who weren’t the right fit, who caused delays on projects and made excuses, which caused some stress for other team members. When a hire doesn’t appear to be adjusting correctly, Sklar says the best remedy is to course-correct as soon as possible.

“You work with them to try to improve their behavior and the way they operate, and if it doesn’t work, you let them go as quickly as you can so that they don’t poison the culture,” he says.

Looking back, Sklar says his focus on providing exceptional management was borne in an earlier venture of his, Burrito Brothers. He opened the restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 1989, and in the ’90s expanded it to a 13-store chain. In 1999, he sold the company. Kimanthi Muia, a Kenyan immigrant whom Sklar hired as a dishwasher shortly after launching, purchased the original Pennsylvania Avenue location.

“He was a super smart guy, [an] incredibly hard worker and a wonderful personality with all the values that I described,” Sklar says. “Within a year or two, he was manager of that store, and when we sold the company, we sold that restaurant to him.”

As for Sklar, he further refined his personnel management chops as managing partner of Alpha Omega Winery, a business he founded in 2005 and sold in 2013.

He conveys a passion for giving people opportunities to grow in their careers. But, he explains, it’s not for nothing. “They have to earn it, they have to work at it, they have to want it,” he says. “They have to succeed at it.”

Turnage, who started at Fumé in March 2018 as a plant technician, said he put in extra hours over the years “being very hands-on in the gardens and researching new grow methods and constantly looking for better practices.” Those efforts led to his current role as garden manager.

“You matter at Fumé, and they make sure you know it,” Turnage says. “And because we’re a company with big ambitions, there’s room for growth in many different directions.”

If employees are interested in or require continuing education, the company will reimburse them for a course or certification program, Hambrecht says.

It’s important to retain people for long periods for a few reasons, Sklar says. There are costs to turnover, expenses associated with recruiting and training new employees. Plus, low turnover improves the company culture.

The company offers perks like competitive pay, benefits and training “because we believe in it and because it feels a lot better,” he says. “But it also makes the company more profitable when you have people who work over a long period of time that are committed to the company and you have low turnover.”

A cannabis plant growing at Fumé
Photos courtesy of Napa Valley Fumé

Imparting a Family Atmosphere

Fumé looks after its employees in multiple ways, beyond health insurance-from celebrating birthdays and work anniversaries to helping take care of them when they are sick.

“Regardless of what you do for the company, I take a personal interest in each and every employee,” Hambrecht says. “I have a very open-door policy. If someone’s sick, I have cooked them chicken noodle soup in their home and made sure that they have the right doctors.”

Hambrecht recalls one specific situation where an employee had used all of her sick days and needed several weeks off work. “We initiated a GoFundMe campaign for her,” Hambrecht says. “We worked with not only the network of our Fumé family, but I sent it out on Facebook, and I had friends of mine donating to this person’s GoFundMe account.”

Fumé celebrates work anniversaries—providing employees with T-shirts, hoodies and hats after 90 days at the company; a fleece jacket after a year; a backpack after two years; a jacket after three years; and a Yeti cooler after four years.

These results represent averages from all companies that applied and are not results from individual companies.

Addressing birthdays, Hambrecht says, “It was easier pre-COVID to take the time to celebrate. So, while we continue our monthly birthday celebrations, we now sing to each other 6 feet apart.”

Turnage says the family vibe means he and his colleagues can be themselves at work. “I mean, you can hardly call this work when you’re getting to be around friends and ‘family’ all day long,” he says.

There is not only a sense of friendship and even a familial-type “love” among people at Fumé, Turnage says, but, like Sklar, he highlights the importance of acknowledging people’s ideas.

“Everyone has a voice here no matter your position,” Turnage says. “Just like in the gardens, you have to be open to all ideas and opinions. Gardening is an ever-changing process, and you have to be as adaptable as your plants, so we never want anyone to feel like they can’t express themselves.”

Eric Sklar, standing in middle with plaid shirt; Elissa Hambrecht, standing left with blue sweater; Jordan Turnage, standing right with arm on ladder; Richard Derum, sitting in the front left with denim jacket and green hat, along with other members of the Napa Valley Fumé team
Photo by Kevin Fiscus

Planting Trees and Writing Letters

The Fumé team engages in philanthropic efforts, which take the form of both financial contributions and activities.

For every eighth of LAKE GRADE product sold—and it’s sold across California—the company makes a donation to the reforestation non-profit One Tree Planted to plant a tree, fulfilling its mission statement of “Planting Trees for Future Generations.”

Sklar worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis; and worked with the Clinton administration when he owned Burrito Brothers. Now, he uses his political experience in drafting model legislation in California to reduce packaging while maintaining its child-resistant properties.

In addition to sustainability efforts, Fumé has engaged with a criminal justice-reform campaign. In fall 2020, the entire Fumé team wrote letters to prisoners across the U.S. as part of the company’s partnership with Last Prisoner Project, an organization committed to releasing every person who is incarcerated for cannabis crimes.

Some Fumé employees have criminal records, which Hambrecht says she knows only because they have brought it up in conversation.

California has “banned the box,” meaning no employers in the state can ask if an applicant has a criminal history before making a conditional job offer. Fumé runs background checks on driver applicants as required by the insurance companies with whom it works, Hambrecht says. “We’re looking for grand theft, or other types of offenses would maybe make it not eligible.”

“If you’ve been arrested, convicted, done time for cannabis cultivation, for cannabis sales, distribution, we view those laws as having been wrong in the first place,” Sklar says. “We view them as discriminatory at their core going after racial minorities, and so we are not going to let that stand in the way.”

These results represent averages from all companies that applied and are not results from individual companies.

Carrying on In Life

There’s another way—one that seems simple and is sometimes overlooked elsewhere—that Fumé cares for its employees. Sklar says he encourages them to use their vacation days and avoid working long hours throughout the entire year. There are some necessary exceptions, such as during the bustling harvest season, when employees need to have their “reserves” built up and perform at their best.

“It goes all the way up to the executives in the company, where I have to remind our COO and our CMO, ‘Take time for yourself,’ ‘Hey, are you finding time to exercise?’ ‘Are you finding enough time for yourself?’” Sklar says. “Because those things are critical to people’s health and well-being.”

If employers want to offer their workers a proper work-life balance, they must be dedicated to the principle, Sklar says.

Offering another word about encouraging time off, he shares an overarching sentiment that also applies to open mics and chicken-noodle-soup caregiving: “In the end, it’s mostly altruistic because we care about our team members so much. But it’s actually good for the company, too.”

Patrick Williams is Senior Editor of Cannabis Business Times.