We all have that friend who marches to the beat of their own drum. The one who challenges the stereotypes of how the world has always been or, even scarier, doesn't care. These are the friends who don't follow normal routines, who see life not just as doing work but as a chance to build something bigger than themselves. They are seemingly fearless.
For me, that friend is James Brobyn.
As a "Mustang," a prior enlisted Marine, who worked his way to the Naval Academy and then into leading Marines in combat as an infantry officer, James has always taken risks. Even after he took off the uniform, he continued to pursue challenges that seemed too risky to consider, even for the most battle hardened. He helped the Travis Manion Foundation grow from a small family-led nonprofit into a nationally recognized powerhouse. He's started businesses, closed businesses and started them again. James' battles can be scary both to your health and to your finances but I've learned that my friend is not fearless. Instead, he finds his strength in a single word that defines who he is at his core: INTEGRITY.
In ancient Rome, the Legionnaires, not unlike Marines today, would conduct inspections before battle. Paramount in this ritual was their breastplate, the armour that protects soldiers from enemy arrows or swords. Legionnaires would spend countless hours polishing their breastplates and tightening straps. Not a single crack or chip was permitted. When a soldier passed inspection, he would pound his fist into the metal and yell, "Integritas," (Integrity) for all others to hear. This was not only an affirmation that the armour was sound but also that the heart and soul it protected was of whole, pure character -- ready to take on any challenge in battle.
James has called me into his battles both figuratively and literally many times over the last two decades. We served together in the Marines and deployed together to Iraq. He's been my boss twice. He fired me once only to hire me back 10 years later. Another story for another time but I am grateful for everything he has taught me. Above all else, James is not afraid of hard work. In between these battles, James would disappear for a few months and then reappear with a phone call. Even to this day, he still starts each conversation with my callsign from Iraq, "White 1."
Not long ago, James called me again. "White 1, I got something for you." He paused. "I've started a cannabis company and I want you to come see what we've built." Of course, I was intrigued but also weary. Cannabis is an industry tied with all kinds of risk. It's legal in some states, not in others. It's celebrated by some of my friends (especially veterans) and hated by others, including my own family. There is a stigma that cannabis is the Wild West, a gold rush of former drug dealers and shady investors trying to get rich in the grey area. It's a world of multiple tribes jockeying for power. Honestly, it felt a little like James was asking me to go back to Iraq. I stuttered, "Is this legal?"
My friend could only laugh, "Yes, we've built our business with integrity from the ground up." Two days later, I was on a plane to a cannabis farm in Michigan. What I saw changed my entire view of both James and the industry.
The American Fiber Company (AmFI) is a multistate cannabis brand that delivers pharmaceutical grade products directly to consumers and wholesalers. It is also the result of a three year journey that took James and his team from Colombia to Canada to the United States. AmFi operates three dispensaries in Michigan; they're the first company approved to import FDA certified 100% organic CBD oil into the United States and they've partnered with world class research facilities to ensure their products maintain the highest safety standards. My first question to James: "How the hell did you build all this?"
James reminded me, "We did the hard work. We built the framework. We run it the right way with Integrity."
I recently chatted with James to understand more about his journey from combat to cannabis.
James: White 1.
WATM: Blue 1. (James's callsign from 2006). Boom. All right. Comms are up. So here's my thought and you tell me what you feel comfortable with. I would really like to focus on your journey from combat to the cannabis industry as well as some of the crazy things that happened along the way.
James: Ok. So before I answer that, what is your goal with the article?
I think to myself, "Dammit. How did he turn that one on me so fast?"
WATM: Good question. I like to highlight influencers in our space that are at the top of their game. It's a series of interview questions so people can get to know others that are making moves in our world. So are you making moves?James: (He laughs). Yeah, ok, I think that makes sense. So I guess from my standpoint, I'm most excited about how the journey got me to this point right now. Honestly, every skill from the Academy to leading Marines in combat to the Travis Manion Foundation are all being used to build something.
All those core values that we learned and were beat into us. Do hard work with integrity, do it the right way. That's what's really neat about it. When you put those principles to work every day and you teach people to abide by them, you build your own tribe and it works. People want to be a part of something. And that's what's kind of cool about this. That's what's really been the neatest part about the cannabis industry. It's a rich kind of this weird, you know, fraternity that lets in all types of people, which is great.
WATM: When was the first time you got introduced to cannabis?
James: My God, I was a teenager. I grew up in Philly in the 80s and 90s. At 15, 16, 17, it was part of the culture. Honestly, it wasn't about weed. I was just trying to fit in with the local friends. Normal teenage stuff. And I wanted to keep up with my older brothers but I made bad choices and eventually my dad kicked me out of the house.
WATM: Kicked you out?James: Yep, at 19, but honestly he should have done it earlier. In hindsight, I just wanted to find my tribe and the outcome was partying. I had it in sports, but, you know, as soon as you start getting older and you leave high school you lose the camaraderie. A lot of people do. So I made bad decisions. We'll leave it at that.
WATM: What about the decision to join the Marine Corps?
James: When I was at boot camp, I was like, what the hell did I do? I thought that, like, every day. But I think most people do. When I got my aircrew wings, it was scary to be Lance Corporal, but I had two pilots in my squadron that I flew with consistently. They told me about a program for helping enlisted Marines get into the Naval Academy. They changed my life.
WATM: Why do you think they focused on you?
James: In so many ways, they took an interest in me and my long term well-being. Not short term, not as some piece of equipment, but in me as a person. Once word got around that there was traction on my application, honestly, I had half the squadron helping me out. I even had Staff NCOs that were taking me on ridiculous runs to train me to get ready to go to the Naval Academy. I mean, I think they just saw I gave a shit. I showed up every day.
WATM: Is there anything about your time at the Academy that stands out? Any major lessons learned that you still use today?James: You learn how to win there. I believe it. It comes down to two things. First is the honor code. I think you see it with Captain Crozier (USNA '92) and the recent situation on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Your integrity is what you have. If you give it away, then you have no foundation. Nothing to build from. It's a house of cards. Secondly, the Academy teaches you that you can do more than any other person out there. Without a doubt. I mean, you know, the amount of stuff you can get done in 24 hours there is ridiculous. I keep those lessons with me daily.
James with the Marines of 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq, 2006
Photo Courtesy of James Brobyn
WATM: You graduated in 2004, and we deployed to Iraq together not long after. What is there about leading Marines that stands out?
James: I loved my dudes. 2006 and 2007 were hard times to be in Iraq. We were given a mission to provide security for 30,000 people and not much more resources than what we had. That pretty much looks like a small business to me. It was the best entrepreneurship training that I've had. Honestly, combat is the closest thing to running a business in the cannabis industry. that I have found. You have to be nimble, understand uncertainty, take a look at risks and act. But at the end of the day, your plan never survives first contact. All you can do is surround yourself with good people.
WATM: How do you make the leap from combat to cannabis?
James: At first, I was just following cannabis related to veterans. There are a lot of positive benefits outside just the medical aspects. First off, dudes drink less, eat better and lose weight. There are multiple levels of benefit but I hadn't thought about the business side of things until I met Dan Tobon, a former Army Sniper and Iraq veteran. We became fast friends. Dan had just started working on a project in Colombia where his family is from called NuSierra Holdings.Colombia had approved export of cannabis products and it was anticipated at that time Canada and Australia would be able to import them, even THC products. So it was a big rush to get out of Colombia and go out to the commoditized cannabis world. Then we met John Leja, founder of PharmaCannis, who understood the retail side of the business and was trying to establish a packing facility in Toronto. I met John and Dan at a bar in Philly and they asked me, 'Will you help us out?' I didn't know much about cannabis but I knew we had supply and distribution so I said, 'Sure. Let's figure this out.' I was on a plane to Toronto the next day.
WATM: There are so many stereotypes associated with cannabis, do you have a hard time getting over the stigmas or comparisons to a gold rush?James: I learned alot from John and Dan about how to stop thinking of cannabis as a shiny object of gold that's going to make everyone rich but as a commodity that's going to be turned into an amazing consumer product. If you reframe cannabis that way, you can start thinking about designing a strategy where you can gain footholds into different parts of the supply chain that are completely compliant, legal, and then allow us to really take a good market share of the industry.
James and the Author in a American Fiber Company grow facility
Photo Courtesy of James Brobyn
WATM: Was this venture your training for the American Fiber Company and setting up a cannabis business in the U.S.?
James: 100%. In 2018, it felt like every state was its own country when it came to cannabis. Some were recreational, others were medicinal only and others, it was flat out illegal. We had a plan for how to set up a multi-state operation but it's hard to work because every jurisdiction has its own rules. And you literally have to go into jurisdictions. You have to work with the locals. You can't just pop in your model and make it work. You have to build from the ground up and it all came back to finding the right people. People with integrity. American Fiber established our first operations in Southwest Michigan.
WATM: You've mentioned integrity a lot. What does integrity really mean to you?
James: It's not about just telling the truth. It's about following through. It's about doing what you say you're going to do. Doing it the right way. Even if it's hard -- especially if it's hard. That's the key here because that's how you normalize the industry. We work with the state and federal regulators to do the hard work that people don't want to do.
WATM: Like becoming the first company in the U.S. to legally import full spectrum CBD oil?
James: That's just one example. We never set out to be the first company in the world to import full-spectrum CBD oil out of Colombia into the US, but we figured out how to get it compliant with Customs and Border Protection. But we've also taken on other challenges that are just as hard. We've built a research partnership in Delaware with Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biology so that we can figure out how to start collecting real data on health benefits so that we can go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, get approved by the FDA on certain products and continue to provide safe quality, cannabis products to our consumers. And that's why it's a long game.
The American Fiber Company Team in Michigan
Photo Courtesy of James Brobyn
WATM: Is the long game paying off?
James: I think so. Take the current COVID-19 restrictions for example. Every state that had medicinal and recreational policies deemed cannabis business essential. I mean, yeah. Our team in South Michigan is out there every day serving patients curbside, delivery, and hopefully drive-through soon. We're moving into a post-prohibition world right now and now it's pretty exciting.
WATM: Where do you see American Fiber in that world. Maybe 5 years from now?
James: Oh, my God. That's like 50 decades in this industry. Well, let me tell you what the ultimate goal is, and it's how we've always tried to build a company. I always felt that we built a company that we could take public. Ultimately, I want American Fiber to be synonymous with all the values that make our people and country ready to face whatever challenge comes ahead. Hard work, commitment and integrity.
James: Exactly. Integritas.