We spoke to Julie Lerner of PanXchange about the hemp industry and the effects of COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Julie Lerner: Of course, this pandemic is a tragedy that has brought sudden hardship and loss to many worldwide. While I empathize with this and am supporting friends, family, and colleagues who are struggling, for me, it has become a time of deep gratitude. More specifically, I’m grateful for the health of my “inner circle” and for the supportive network we provide for one another.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded PanXchange.
Julie Lerner: I am the Founder and CEO of PanXchange, a web-based trading platform and benchmark price provider for physical commodities. In 2019, I created the hemp industry’s first suite of price benchmarks; mere weeks after hemp became federally legal. Within a few short months, it became the industry’s leading and most trusted benchmark price source. It is still the only institutional-grade trading platform available for hemp growers, processors, trade houses, and end-users, making it a hugely beneficial development in the nascent U.S. industrial hemp market. With the help of PanXchange, it is maturing beyond its opaque and fragmented state. PanXchange grew rapidly in hemp due to its success in the U.S. oil and gas’s specialty sand market. Specifically, in October of 2017, PanXchange launched its platform for frac sand, becoming the first and only exchange for supporting this 120 million ton market. Two months later, the company created the first-ever benchmark prices for the industry. This innovation was recognized as a leading innovator by the International Futures Industry Association (FIA) and won Barchart, Inc.’s International Startup Exchange Competition.
Apart from PanXchange, I have deep experience in regional and international agricultural and energy markets. I began my career with Cargill, International in Geneva, Switzerland, and later moved on to be Cargill, Inc’s Sr Latin American sugar trader. I have also worked in electricity markets for Sempra Energy Trading and in agricultural weather derivatives with XL Financial. Geographically, my area of expertise covers the U.S., Europe, Latin America, and East Africa. As Managing Director of Golden Seeds, an angel group focused on early-stage investments in women-owned ventures. I’ve provided entrepreneurs with strategic business advice and funding access. I mentor young women through a program run by the Denver Business Journal. I have also recently been appointed to the Hemp Industry Association Board and the University of Colorado’s JP Morgan Commodity Center to serve on its Advisory Council and guest lecture for both graduate and undergraduate courses. I am also a frequent contributor to media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg (T.V. and print), and the Financial Times.
How does PanXchange innovate?
Julie Lerner: PanXchange innovates by providing market structure solutions for the physical commodity markets that feed and fuel the world. Our patented trading platform software offers a user-friendly, centralized marketplace to source and trade. It is the only institutional-grade platform in production, replete with counterpart management, anonymous trading, and negotiation of every aspect of the trade (quality, delivery window, payment terms, etc.) and no costs associated with regulation clearing. In underlying commodities, the counterparty management for anonymous negotiations is required for physical deal flow to level the playing field for all players involved. The results are instant market access and price discovery, and benchmark prices backed by trade data.
For this reason, the trading platform design scales across any commodity or geography by aggregating all types of physical commodities’ negotiation and trade into one web-based platform, offering instant price discovery and market access for increased operating efficiency and profit opportunities. While PanXchange provides the only institutional-grade trading platform that’s patent-protected and in production in multiple markets, it’s the objective data gleaned from that activity that serves as a foundation for objective price discovery. Specifically, PanXchange is the leading benchmark price provider in the U.S. hemp industry and the defacto benchmark price provider in the 120 million ton specialty sand market for U.S. oil and gas. The PanXchange system develops markets at any stage of the market evolution timeline. Our system innovates by allowing physical market players to reach the next step in the evolution cycle to bring price discovery and transparency.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Julie Lerner: The most significant effect we have seen from the coronavirus pandemic affecting our business is no longer having in-person conferences. We had the good fortune to have prominent speaking roles and experienced substantial bumps in customer acquisition. By mid-march 2020, our team was fully-booked with Bloomberg, CNN, Futures Industry Association and hemp-specific conferences, etc. on our calendars, but once the pandemic hit closer to come in the middle of March, our business development and P.R. plan quickly shifted. We quickly shifted our focus to generating our own content and programming and working with other virtual media venues, such as participating in various podcasts, webinars, and virtual conferences. At the beginning of the summer, we participated in events once a week, but we saw a slow decline as the hemp farmers were in the middle of harvesting and experiencing webinar fatigue. We also took to the phones with a very personalized approach, spending more time checking in with our clientele before getting down to business. Despite all of this, we have persevered and can’t wait to retake part in face-to-face events when deemed safe.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Julie Lerner: At the beginning of the shutdown, I was deeply concerned about the team’s overall productivity. However, I immediately created a simple structure and procedures on how we’d work virtually, and I could not be more proud of how the team adapted. As of the middle of March, we have all been working remotely. I believe the biggest learned lessons have been time-management and independent workflow for my team. We have all been looking forward and not dwelling on its inconvenience, but rather trying to think positive through it all. This mentality has made possible through my self-described management style of “management by empowerment” — essentially on the other side of the spectrum from micromanagement. I found trustworthy and talented people for my team. I provide a vision and objectives for my employees to build toward and then give them the flexibility to accomplish tasks in whichever manner they think will be most effective. I make myself available as a resource whenever anyone needs help but won’t breathe down their necks as they work. I empower my team to take on new challenges, and the team empowers me to keep driving the company forward. I have fostered an environment where listening enables employees to understand better customers’ perspectives (current and prospective), business partners, and one another.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and PanXchange in the future?
Julie Lerner: The shutdown also meant that my travel schedule came to a screeching halt. As I could no longer use jet lag as an excuse, I resumed exercising regularly, outdoors, throughout the summer. I’m also learning how to meditate and play poker, and all three activities allow me to take my mind off the uncertainties of our times.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Julie Lerner: PanXchange® hemp benchmark prices are the leading price provider for U.S. hemp, and our biggest competitor is not on the trading side, but the benchmark pricing side of our hemp business. They describe themselves as a traditional Price Reporting Agency (PRA). Yet, we prefer to describe ourselves as a price discovery platform since all of our benchmarks are derived using trade-backed data. It’s a far more accurate methodology. Moreover, trade-backed data also means that we only collect prices from our vetted membership of growers, processors, trade houses, and end-users (no brokers, no analysts, industry reps). In contrast to our competitors, the exchange is not open to financial speculators and brokerage firms.
Your final thoughts?
Julie Lerner: Overall, I think PanXchange is in the best possible place, given the challenges of Covid-19. However, that is not to say that we haven’t suffered in terms of projected growth for 2020. Running a young company comes with an abundance of unforeseen challenges, and this is one I am looking forward to putting in the rearview mirror.
Feel free to reach out with any inquiries at our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. PanXchange Founder & CEO Julie Lerner, talking on ‘What’d You Miss?’ regarding the Future of Hemp Trading and the Opportunities of Hemp vs. Cannabis. Minute Mark 24:00 for Julie’s discussion.