Ben Roush on Live, Cannabis, and Engineering

by | Feb 22, 2022 | Cannabis Dispensary

Q – K indly give our readers an introduction to your business. Please include what your business is all about, in which city you are located and if you have offices in multiple locations/ cities.

Ben Roush – We have offices in Seattle, Baltimore, and Spokane, but we are licensed and work in many more states. We add licenses as marijuana becomes legal, state by state. Essentially, we can (and will) work anywhere in the US that our clients need us.

Q – Kindly give us a brief description about yourself (it should include your brief educational or entrepreneurial background and list some of your major achievements).

Ben RoushThe most important thing to know is that I love what I do! I happily describe myself as a code geek, because reading code is really fun for me. I know that makes me unusual. I also like to offer my expertise in service to my community and industry, so I sit on a lot of committees that advocate for sustainability, and recently started on the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard 420 committee on cannabis safety standards.

Working in the cannabis industry is ideal for me, because there is so much cool new technology. Chromatography is particularly exciting the way it applies to cannabis. Because the next new thing is always interesting to me, I also collect licenses and certifications. I’m a PE and a Fire Protection Engineer with credentials in commissioning and sustainability from a variety of organizations. My business card looks a lot like a bowl of alphabet soup.

Outside of work, I love skiing and rock climbing. My wife, an astrophysicist, and I just had a baby. That’s taking up a lot of time, and we couldn’t be happier. It does mean no skiing this winter, though, and that’s weird for us. I actually met her through rock climbing, and we have a climbing wall in our attic.

Q – What inspired you to (start a new business venture) or (to make significant changes in an existing business)? How did the idea for your business come about?

Ben RoushI come from a background of engineering wineries, distilleries, and food production. Those skills are a perfect base for designing grow and extraction facilities. It’s important to me that cannabis producers be able to work in safe and effective environments. That’s not always the case, unfortunately. We’re proud to be bringing a high level of professionalism to the industry, while still retaining a fun and entrepreneurial outlook.

Q – What three pieces of advice would you give to budding cannabis producers?

Ben RoushGet an engineer before you buy equipment. There are lots of brands that can’t meet code no matter what. It’s money down the drain.

Get an engineer you trust. Work with them to hire an architect even if you’re doing a retrofit in an existing grow facility. It will save money in the long run.

Get your team on board before you even sign a lease. If you are committed to a facility that can’t get an occupancy permit due to zoning or other concerns, there is absolutely no solution but to eat that cost and try again.

Budget for money & time. We have tough conversations with new business owners who think they can get started in 3 weeks. Permitting alone will take 6 weeks minimum, more when the fire marshal asks questions, which they almost always do. If your project gets red-tagged in the beginning, the rest of the process will slow way down.

To sum up: Great design SAVES time. And money. Start your planning with proven experts on your team.

Q – What would you say are the top three skills needed to be successful in the cannabis industry?

For the industry overall:

Be scrupulously professional. For the industry at large, that means doing business with a contract, not just a handshake. In the cash economy it’s easy to get burned.

Vet products/services before you buy. Look for scientific background, company reputation & solid business practices. Verify their claims. Talk to other clients. It’s a whole new level of investigation because it’s a young industry. Through-put claims can be wildly off, which makes your projections equally unreliable. That will blow your budget up faster than just about anything else.

The cannabis industry is volatile, if you will excuse the pun. You need to assess your tolerance for risk. You also need to build worst-case scenarios into your budget and business plans.

Specific to CE+C

For our business, we strive for what we call “extreme responsiveness.” Our customers have high expectations and we work to meet them.

Integrity is a huge issue. There are many bad actors in this industry. We do everything with scrupulous honesty. For example, we don’t rubber stamp other engineers’ plans, because it’s against just about every state’s code of ethics. This reputation is why fire marshals like to work with us. We’re experts and we know what you MUST do.

We make sure we’re flexible. We work within the confines of the codes in jurisdictions all across the country. It’s like a puzzle that is different for every owner from a tiny place to a 40K sf grow. Similar installations in different places can have drastically different solutions & costs.

We are persuasive: We can make your argument to the fire marshals in a way that helps them trust your plans. That leads to faster permitting, which leads to faster production and profit.

Q – How many hours do you work a day on average?

Ben RoushI have been averaging 52-55 hours a week. Now, with a new baby, I’ve committed to keeping that down to about 45. I’m learning to delegate and let go. I work on 25+ projects at a time. Putting teams together is how we work on so many small projects. And every single client is the MOST IMPORTANT one to the owner. We make sure we treat them that way.

Q – To what do you most attribute your success?

Ben RoushMy parents made a lot of sacrifices to get me to great schools and I got a scholarship to college. I married a woman who kept me on track in my 20s where I probably would have gone off the rails. I fell into a career at an ASHRAE BBQ, where I met someone who introduced me to building design. I was hooked right away and really dug into my career, working on wineries and food production. That set me up to come work at CE+C with experience that was beyond my years. The company has given me the opportunity to work on only projects that I’m passionate about.

It also helps that I find it easy to memorize code. I’m persuasive and that helps move projects through code and permitting process. But mostly I’m surrounded by supportive people who are committed to supporting everyone creating their dream jobs.

Q – How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?

Ben RoushNothing works better than client satisfaction and word of mouth. Satisfied clients whose businesses grow are our best champions. We’ve been in the industry since 2016, so our first clients are building their 3rd and 4th generation facilities. We entered the industry in the infancy of legal recreational use, and have been growing right along with it.

Q – How do you navigate the grey legal areas of working in an industry that is not fully, federally legal.

Ben RoushWe started a separate firm under our parent company. We talked to lawyer, State Registration Boards, and our insurer. In fact, we had to change insurance carriers to get covered. We should have checked with our bank first, as having cannabis in our name caused problems and led us to take our business to a credit union. If you can’t bank, you’re at great risk. Fortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill that allowed hemp means we can accept money across state lines, which we weren’t doing before. We can also declare our work with our parent company.

However, most of our projects aren’t solely CBD, so it’s still a grey area. We always get paid up front for our work and don’t accept cash payments.

This industry used to have a low collection rate of accounts receivable, and it was a challenge to collect through the court system, so my single biggest piece of advice for the firms just getting into the business is to be paid for your work in advance.

Q – Where did your organizations funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?

Ben Roush – Engineering firms are not capital-intensive by nature. We sell a knowledge product and that product is us. Not having to carry inventory means a lower initial investment.

Q – What is the best way to achieve long-term success?

Ben RoushThis is a young industry, but so far, it’s about giving our clients great service and great product. Our parent company has been operating on these same principles for more than 35 years and is very successful.

Q – Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 – 10 years?

Ben RoushThe cannabis industry is always growing. We’ve grown to become 5% of our parent company’s income and we expect that percentage to keep increasing, even as both companies grow. When marijuana becomes federally legal, there will be a single set of rules across the board from national codes. That’s when our growth will increase exponentially. Like other industries, some businesses will consolidate and we will be working on huge facilities with food-processing-level controls. Think nutritional supplement or Nestle-sized plants. We’ll be there, helping our clients harness economies of scale where they really matter. The price of growing is falling, and the market is going to change. The NFPA 420 committee is pushing for some of those changes so it will be easier for everyone. Federal legalization will make all the difference.

Q – How important have good employees been to your success?

Ben RoushIt’s not possible without the team. It’s the whole team, from marketing and accounting to project coordination. I trust my engineers to know their abilities, and also to know when they’re out of their depth. Everybody has to know when they don’t know.

Q – How long do you stick with an idea before giving up?

Ben RoushIt really depends on the idea. I’ve had a long-running idea that I’ve handed over to equipment manufacturers. There’s an iterative process with ethanol. You’re always using heat and then chilling the ethanol to reclaim it from the oil. It’s repetitive and redundant. Pulling heat out and putting heat in. It screams to have a heat pump, so the heat is moved back & forth instead of being created anew. And I’m pushing that idea out to every equipment supplier who will listen to me. I wish somebody would just run with it already!

Back in our beginning, we had iterations of how to do emergency exhaust in hotter climates. It ended up creating problems. We couldn’t air condition it well enough, and we had unhappy (very hot) clients. So we scrapped what we had been doing and figured out a better way to give our clients what they needed.

We have a spreadsheet that is unique in the industry for fan sizing. It’s MUCH more precise than the usual rule-of-thumb calculations done by most engineers. Fan size is wildly dependent on temperature. Knowing what we know changes the conversations we have with clients and often saves money for them. I learned a more about Excel pivot tables than I ever thought I would, and found obscure calculations that were really exciting for me. This serves our clients better.

Q – What motivates you?

Ben RoushIt’s complex. For a long time it was discovering new solutions, which is most of an engineer’s career. This industry has a lot of rules that haven’t even been written yet. It’s still really exciting. Being on the NFPA 420 committee gives me a chance to share knowledge with others.

I really dig the satisfaction of projects completed. My mom always told me to be an engineer because it would be like playing with the biggest Lego bricks ever. She was right. When a project comes together well, it’s really rewarding. Especially when it’s a novel process, which the cannabis industry is full of. We look to the pharmaceutical industry for best practices which we can adapt to our needs.

Q – What are your ideals?

Ben RoushOur company has what we call the VVP, our Vision, Values, and Purpose statement that spells out our priorities. I value extreme fairness. You could call me a centrist Democrat with a libertarian streak. I think the cannabis industry is a legit thing to do. Criminalizing marijuana is nothing less than appalling. From an equity standpoint, it is wildly unjust.

Q – How do you generate new ideas?

Ben RoushI really enjoy looking around at what hasn’t been done yet. There’s so much room for scale jumping and the next big idea. It’s the synthesis of information and collaboration. I’ve got a pie wedge of knowledge, my clients have a different wedge, our sub consultant architects and engineers have yet another wedge, and together we create a really great whole pie.

I also find working within limitations to be the cradle of creativity. It forces me to keep sharp and to push past the edges of my current knowledge. That’s where the new ideas are.

Q – How do you define success?

Ben RoushOur founder has asked me why money is “so damned important” to me. Money is part of success, but only one metric. There’s also gaining knowledge, serving our clients well, and seeing client businesses take off and become successful. My biggest successes are when our clients get to go on to the next level. What we did helped them do what they do. In the end, that comes back around to getting hired for the next project.

Q – What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

Ben RoushWe are an employee-owned company, an S-corp. When the staff who came up behind me stepped into the leadership role and bought into the company was a really big deal, and pretty emotional. Mentoring as a crucial part of the way we work.

Q – What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?

Ben RoushWe keep an intentionally flat organizational structure. The client can call the CEO. They person who sells you on your project is someone you’ll continue to see & work with.

Q – In one word, characterize your life as an entrepreneur.

Ben RoushChallenging! I love challenge. It keeps me motivated and interested.

Q – If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

Ben RoushI would know that there was a career of “building consultant” instead of just falling into it. It combines the hard & soft skills. It’s the most satisfying combination I can imagine and not a lot of careers allow it.

Q – What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage fear?

Ben RoushFunny thing for a rock climber to say, but it’s falling. I get squeamish at heights if I’m unroped. But I trust my equipment and don’t go unroped.

Q – Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?

Ben RoushNope. There are too many variables and luck is always a factor. I worked hard and have skills, but there’s more to it than just working hard. I was also in the right place at the right time and part of that is just being lucky.

Q – If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?

Ben RoushI read a biography of Frederick Douglass and he seems like a guy you could really make things happen with.

Q – Who has been your greatest inspiration?

Ben RoushMy parents built a business from scratch. It started as a one person trenching company with a $5000 loan from my grandfather. Now it’s a 50-person firm that my brother will take over. My mom quit her job to get a degree in accounting to become the company accountant. My parents built something lasting, and I see the sacrifice it took. There was no 9-5 for them.

Q – What book has inspired you the most? (OR what is your favorite book?

Ben RoushThat’s got to be The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles, by Julie Andrews. That book gave me the part of my job that relates to sustainability. I read 20-25 books a year. And now with a new baby, I’m reading in the middle of the night. I’m re-reading Ursula LaGuin. What a great story teller.

Q – What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made in business?

Ben RoushThere’s a certain amount of trust that is too much, and that’s a learning experience. I know I’m a good designer, and I have a team of good designers. But for a while, we got too busy, and that’s when errors started to impact our clients. The good news is that quickly prompted us to create a rigorous QC process done at the most senior levels. I hate to upset clients about something I could have done better.

Q – What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?

Ben RoushI really enjoy autocross: one car on the course at a time against the clock on a cones course. I’m not that good (yet) but it’s really fun. My brother is significantly better. He got so good through a few seasons of indoor electric go-cart racing. I don’t do it enough to ever be really good. It’s like playing the violin, which I also do. I’m not getting better, but I’m really having fun. It’s about the minutia. I shave seconds off by entering a corner 10 degrees different. It appeals to my engineer brain. And the adrenaline is pretty great, too.

Q – How is the cannabis industry different than other markets you’ve worked in?

Ben RoushThere are different hoops to jump through because of legality. The expectation of the sophistication of our clients is different than other industries. Our cannabis clients are often new to construction projects and extraction. Setting expectations is a much bigger deal here.

Q – What has surprised you about running a cannabis business?

Ben RoushI’ve had some employees be way more into it than I had expected and it has opened up really interesting discussions with colleagues. Everyone has a choice to work on cannabis projects, or to decline working on these projects. The people are the self-selected ones and it’s fun to see them bring their passion. The rules are different, too.

Q – How do people respond when you tell them what you do?

Ben RoushMy parents were concerned that I was going to get in trouble. My friends think it’s hilarious because I’m pretty straight-edge. Beyond that, we don’t talk about it much. We started this company subsidiary because we can’t talk about it everywhere. Some of our colleagues aren’t even aware that we do it.

Q – How do you bring up the next generation for your company.

Ben RoushWe train our employees in more than just technical skills. We train them to be great communicators, with time to actively work on those skills. We cross train so new engineers can touch all of the areas of our practice and develop a wide scope. That said, we also encourage them to specialize in things that they’re passionate about. This diversity of experience gives them the skill set that forms a base for creativity. It’s a big commitment of the company’s time. Mentoring engineers up to the time they become company owners.

Laura Cole-Bright google placement for PR.

Company: Cannabis Engineering + Compliance


Phone: 206.385.3417

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