A Born Leader

Cannabis Leadership Awards - Drew Duval, Cresco Labs

Drew Duval started in cannabis with a husband-and-wife cultivation operation; years and two acquisitions later, his innate leadership abilities have led him to his newest post overseeing multistate cultivation at Cresco Labs.

July 28, 2022

Photos by Caitlin McCaffrey

Drew Duval wasn’t sure he wanted to take on a new job with Cresco Labs as the company’s senior vice president of cultivation.

It was April 2019, and Cresco, one of the largest multistate cannabis operators in the U.S., had just announced a definitive agreement to acquire CannaRoyalty Corp., which was doing business as Origin House—a leading distributor and provider of brand support services in California.

The announcement came less than a year after Drew and his wife, Karen Duval, had sold their business, FloraCal Farms, to Origin House in a cash and stock transaction that amounted to roughly $28 million. That change alone already presented its challenges.

“It was a big change,” Drew says of selling the Sonoma County-based business that he and Karen co-founded in 2014. The husband-and-wife tandem designed, built and operated one of the county’s first cultivation and processing facilities licensed under the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA) enacted in 2015.

Scaling from approximately $700,000 in sales in 2015 to generating $6.4 million in revenue in fiscal 2017 (from 15,000 square feet), FloraCal Farms’ indoor flower commanded an average selling price of more than $17 per gram to occupy an ultra-premium place in the California market, according to Origin House. Drew says his aim was to establish FloraCal as a craft brand from cannabis grown in Northern California.

Drew Duval, senior vice president of cultivation at Cresco Labs, co-founded FloraCal Farms with his wife, Karen, in 2014. The couple is pictured in their driveway outside of their home in Santa Rosa, Calif., where they live with their children.

Acquisition Dominos

When the Duvals sold FloraCal to Origin House in July 2018—after more than four years running their own ship—it was a big adjustment, but it was one that they agreed to and had control over.

“I’d say the big takeaway for us was just the amount of people we needed to check in with to make a decision,” Drew says. At the same time, it was beneficial to have the support to build out the vision he and Karen sought after, he says.

“It was definitely a sacrifice on the corporate side of things, but I really trusted Marc Lustig, the founder and CEO of Origin House, from a capital markets perspective,” Drew says. “And so, Karen and I, obviously knowing the market and conditions and where we wanted to be, and knowing Marc knew the investor side, we wanted to learn that side of the business, and it was kind of more of a meeting of the minds there to make it work.”

But just as the Duvals were getting acquainted and integrated into their post-M&A world, more change came via the Cresco Labs’ announcement—one they had less control over.

At the time Cresco entered into the definitive agreement to acquire Origin House, the transaction represented a total consideration of roughly $850 million. It also represented what was then the largest public company acquisition in the history of the U.S. cannabis industry, according to Cresco.

The deal was to establish Chicago-based Cresco as one of the largest wholesale distributors in California, selling into more than 575 dispensaries, which, at the time, represented approximately 65% of California’s storefront dispensaries, according to Cresco.

The deal also meant the Duvals, who just had their second child, had a lot more to bite off.

“I also try and bring [team members] into the process of setting the vision. I’ve found most want to be a part of something that they helped to create as opposed to running on action items without understanding the vision.” Drew Duval, Senior VP of Cultivation, Cresco Labs

Multistate Mission

For Drew, after going from co-CEO and co-founder of FloraCal to vice president of facilities and operations at Origin House, even larger opportunities awaited at Cresco, including the responsibility to oversee the company’s cultivation footprint across nine states as the head of cultivation.

When Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell first asked Drew to move to Chicago to run cultivation for the company, Drew “politely declined” given he and Karen just had their second child, he says. But when Bachtell told Drew he wanted him to build a culture around cultivation similar to what the Duvals had built at FloraCal, and that he could do it remotely, Drew says he was all in.

“Cresco said, ‘Look, if we’re going to close this deal, we do need help in cultivation. So, we’d like you to come over and do it,’” Drew says. “And I was a little intimidated to be honest.”

But Drew’s leadership capacity as an industry professional who doesn’t cut corners became evident from the get-go, says Todd West, executive vice president of operations at Cresco Labs, who is Drew’s direct superior.

“We quickly recognized his capabilities in the foundation that he’s built around cultivating and started magnifying what his role and responsibility was at Cresco, and building out a team within [our Center of Excellence] COE environment to really kind of execute that strategy in each of our locations,” West says. (The COE is a corporate initiatives structure with various company departments that aim to execute uniform strategies across the U.S.)

Cresco’s footprint includes a roughly 120,000-square-foot cultivation facility in Lincoln, Ill.—the bread and butter of the company’s operation in its home state.

But for Drew to deviate his focus from his home base in Sonoma County to help Cresco more than double historical yields in Illinois, as well as scale canopy more than five-fold in a six-month period, it meant going back to a state where he spent his teen years after he, his parents and his two sisters relocated to Chicago for his father’s job, with the intention of returning to California just a few years later. “I was the only one that made it back to California,” Drew says.

With the prospect of relocating again causing Drew to feel he “wasn’t ready to really jump in and do it,” he says closing the Cresco-Origin House deal was an arduous journey that involved time-consuming diligence for the Department of Justice, including cellphone downloads, countless meetings with a merger integration group and the like. Eventually, DOJ officials ended up delaying the transaction.

“Honestly, it was just tiring and exhausting,” Drew says, adding that FloraCal’s operation remained top of mind for he and Karen.

Drew says it was difficult to accept the position knowing that he and Karen—who would be named the vice president of commercial sales at Cresco—hadn’t yet finished their vision at FloraCal together.

Plus, Drew adds, he remembers looking at Cresco’s 2020 revenue forecast on his first day and thinking “this kind of scale and growth almost seems impossible.”

Since accepting the Cresco position, he hasn’t looked back.

Drew paired his design and building experience with Karen’s plant knowledge, and the pair quickly became a power couple in Sonoma County.

A Cali Boy

The oldest of three siblings, Drew grew up in Southern California near Santa Barbara until the family move to Chicago when he was 13.

Drew’s father, Foster Duval, who spent much of his career acquiring businesses as the vice president of operations for a building material supply company, describes his son as innovative, smart and athletic.

“He was always a very inquisitive kid, a great athlete, competitive swimmer and played a lot of basketball, and just a lot of fun to be around,” the elder Duval says. “I coached him a lot, and we were close.”

When the Duval family moved to Chicago in the mid-1990s, Drew also started playing water polo. But after his freshman year, he wanted to concentrate on music: He learned how to play guitar and he even taught himself piano by ear, the elder Duval says.

A few years later, Drew received a partial scholarship to Butler University for singing. In fact, the postsecondary faculty in Indianapolis wanted to train him to be an opera singer.

“He was just a real leader,” the elder Duval says. “He was the guy that all the kids wanted to hang with. And he’s the kind of guy that all the moms blamed the trouble their kids got in on him. But he was also smart enough to not get in trouble. So, he just had that leadership quality. I mean, he only lasted a semester at Butler, and then he came home and said, ‘I don’t want you to waste your money. I’m not happy there. It’s not my thing.’”

After Butler, Drew attended the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Wyoming. That’s where his passion for kayaking—and a growing passion for the outdoors—was born.

For five years in his early to mid-20s, Drew was a professional whitewater kayaker in North Carolina and Colorado. He traveled the world to some of the most remote canyons and rivers, where he also spent his time mountain biking, rafting and camping in the backcountry. The physical challenges of the outdoors were tests he accepted and enjoyed.

Being an avid outdoorsman also led Drew to care deeply about the environment and planet, which has translated to his business practices in the cannabis industry.

“I’ve been exploring sustainable facility designs, such as recycling our wastewater with UV [light] … and utilizing automated greenhouse builds in a lot of our markets,” Drew says. “We are currently trialing multiple types of LED lighting currently for both greenhouse and indoor builds while designing efficient facilities. We also utilize soil and [electrical conductivity] sensor monitoring to reduce water consumption and promote yield and quality.”

A Cannabis Entrance

After his NOLS experience, Drew attended Prescott College in Arizona, where he received a degree in environmental policy/studies. As a student there, he developed a wild-and-scenic river proposal that was recently approved by Arizona state officials. As a result, a riparian corridor will be protected from structures, roads, mining and forestry.

Throughout all of that, Drew remained passionate about the cannabis plant, an ardor he developed in high school.

Following the economic downturn in 2008, Drew says he saw a window out in California that inspired him to chase a vision in the cannabis industry.

“My wife … was really my biggest inspiration,” he says. “She was working at a [cannabis] clone facility in Berkeley at the time, and then we met and she kind of dragged me along for the ride.”

Working in the commercial construction field before his cannabis endeavors, Drew paired his design and building experience with Karen’s plant knowledge, and the pair quickly became a power couple in Sonoma County as state and local officials continued to navigate policies for a medical market.

“We had a saying: ‘A couple that works together, stays together.’ So, we did it all,” Drew says. “We had a bootstrap, entrepreneurial mindset.”

But the early days of honing their craft was nothing to write home about at first.

Drew’s father, now 74, said when his son finally moved back to California, there were some secrets being kept.

“Well, I’m an old conservative, so he didn’t tell me. He kept that close to his vest,” the elder Duval says. “He was supposedly working in the dirt business.”

That “dirt business” evolved into a cultivation practice centered around tailored craftsmanship that today is both respected and followed by industry cultivators at various sites throughout Cresco Labs’ multistate network. It entails a rigorous pheno-hunting process that starts with hundreds of plants, hand-selecting only the cultivars with winning traits to be developed into flower, vapes and hand-crafted concentrates found today in FloraCal Farms’ portfolio.

Before FloraCal was officially established in 2014, Drew says he and Karen worked with patients in the San Francisco area and entertained starting a dispensary. After thoughts of dabbling in all that the state’s medical industry potentially had to offer, they decided it was best to focus their efforts on one segment: premium indoor flower.

Writing the Playbook

The Duvals secured space in a 65,000-square-foot warehouse in Santa Rosa, renting a portion of it before they ended up buying the entire facility with two other investors for the opportunity to scale their business. Drew then began morphing the building with an intricate design, believing that to better control a product, it made sense to have small grow rooms.

“And we decided to start a brand, which back then was kind of unheard of, even though Colorado went first (to legalize an adult-use market),” Drew says. “There was very limited brand awareness in the space. There was very little packaging options.”

(As of the first quarter of 2022, FloraCal is the No. 4 best-selling flower brand in California, according to industry analytics firm BDSA.)

But when the Duvals first began orchestrating their vision in the space, certain cannabis ordinances, such as land use and business taxes, had not yet been written for Sonoma County, which they sought to change.

“My wife and I advocated pretty heavily at the county level along with the state level,” Drew says.

They teamed up with the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, which was run by Tawnie Scarborough at the time, and began advocating locally via fundraisers, donations and education.

Collaborating to inform the county’s governmental leaders, the Duvals helped assist Scarborough in leading the effort to draft a cannabis land-use ordinance to bring the Sonoma cannabis industry into the regulated market, Drew says. The ordinance included a sunset clause to allow existing operators time to come into compliance with new regulations.

“It was a way to encourage people to come out of the legacy movement and really get into the compliant regulatory movement,” Drew says. “We were obviously preexisting operators, so it was advantageous, but at the same time it opened up a lot of doors for other operators to come into this space, and it created a lot of great relationships for us too in the process.”

Drew and Karen also took a leadership role in establishing a relationship with North Bay Credit Union in order to streamline their business after struggling with handling cash, partnering with their distributor, Santa Rosa-based River Distributing Co., to help legitimize the effort to gain access to financial services—for FloraCal as well as other growers and operators—Drew says.

The Duvals also worked with Sonoma County’s agricultural board to set pesticide logs and canopy verifications, and to eliminate vegetation canopy from tax collection.

Through his community involvement, Drew says it’s important to him to not just create opportunities for others in the industry but opportunities in general for those outside of the entrepreneurial world, too.

“My passion comes from my giving nature,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people in any way: humor, career growth, music, teaching, etc. I like to watch others succeed and, in turn, learn from them as well.”

Drew Duval and his wife, Karen, sold their business, FloraCal Farms, to Origin House in 2018. Less than a year later, Origin House entered into a definitive agreement to be acquired by Cresco Labs.

Finding New Footing

Drew says a collective vision is what’s allowed him to grow as a leader in the cannabis industry.

Specifically in the transitions with Origin House and Cresco Labs, the Duvals brought along three of their FloraCal team members for the M&A rides: Jeremy Thompson is now the vice president of technical cultivation at Cresco; Benetta Yogendran is a senior project manager; and Kavya Shah is a senior analyst for sales and operations planning.

But Drew’s leadership extends beyond his old work colleagues. Currently, he oversees Cresco’s cultivation and post-harvest operations with 12 people on his team who support the company’s various sites from a corporate standards and practices perspective while those sites run the day-to-day management.

“Drew in general has some very strong ingredients to him as far as who he is, and a high degree of integrity and a strong influence on corporate culture and/or what is relevant within the industry,” West says from the vantage point of Drew’s boss. He adds that Drew “was able to come in opened-minded on ‘What’s it going to take for me to scale?’ and, ‘What resources are in my department?’ to help support [the company’s] initiatives.”

That open mind came despite the ride of two M&A transactions in a small amount of time, with the Cresco-Origin deal taking nine months before closing in January 2020.

Making His Mark

Cresco’s plans were aggressive at the time. The company’s executives were planning to scale five times in canopy, mainly in Illinois and Pennsylvania, but also had plans for Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, Drew says.

Upon taking over cultivation responsibilities at Cresco, Drew helped the company reach unprecedented yields, including more than 100 grams per square foot within four months at the 120,000-square-foot facility in Lincoln.

After the victory in Lincoln, Drew’s team started to get buy-in from other sites across the nation and were able to replicate the model elsewhere. Drew went on to lead the implementation of propagation uniformity, and create and launch standard operating procedures (SOPs) across Cresco’s 15 cultivation facilities.

In creating those SOPs, Drew launched a comprehensive training program with guided videos on cultivation processes for employees. He also rolled out a management training program focused on crop steering, greenhouse management, scheduling and genetic development.

“It was about cross-departmental communications,” Drew says. “We formulated a roadmap to success, and then we tracked against those higher-priority items that were going to get us across the finish line. And then we developed training videos because SOPs in cannabis are kind of only [good] for the people that wrote them.”

Through establishing consistent cultivation practices from site to site and from state to state that have resulted in increased yields and quality, Drew has helped solidify Cresco’s Center of Excellence.

“Being in this industry, that’s not always the way of working,” West says of multistate uniformity. “And it’s very important to us as an organization to allow us to have the foundation that we want to have in each of our departments to build that Center of Excellence, to have your SOPs, your policy procedures, the ways of working intact and mirrored from location to location.”

A Leader of Leaders

Beyond being viewed as an industry expert on knowledge within cultivation, Drew says the difference between now and when he first started his cannabis endeavors is that a new generation with new knowledge is entering the space.

“I’m at a different stage in life where I’m working with men and women in their 30s and they’re kind of teaching me,” he says. “So, there’s things that I’m learning consistently, daily, that before I was inventing almost in a way. And now it’s more about how do I structure a team around myself to where not only am I learning from them, but they’re learning from maybe some of the mistakes I made … or even for me to kind of blow up roadblocks for them so they can be successful.”

Satisfaction now comes in knowing he’s helped others in their triumph, Drew says. In taking the time to understand what his team members need in order to accomplish their goals, Drew says he works relentlessly to clear a path for the finish line or to help bundle complexities in any way that he can.

“I also try and bring them into the process of setting the vision,” he says. “I’ve found most want to be a part of something that they helped to create as opposed to running on action items without understanding the vision.”

But coming from that traditional culture in Northern California to out in the open with his FloraCal business to the lead visionary in finding consistency across multiple states in his role at Cresco Labs, Drew has learned a thing or two along the way, especially as the industry increasingly parallels commercial horticultural.

“You have this legacy movement. You’ve got commercial hort. The two have never really aligned,” Drew says. “The secrets of growing cannabis versus a commercial crop: You’re monocropping most of the time in a commercial setting, you’re using pesticides, heavy automation. [That’s the] difference compared to cannabis, where we’re growing 100 cultivars under one roof that all need different things. How do you standardize it but also give the plant what it needs to get your desired outcome?

“I think we’re already seeing it, that those two worlds are going to merge.”

That’s what keeps Drew motivated through times of uncertainly, both in the industry and in his own path from a start-up grower to a multistate cultivator: Tomorrow’s cannabis practices have yet to be drafted.

While Drew acknowledges he’s helped trailblaze the path behind him and others, he says he wants to continue to lead as the industry adapts toward the future.

“I like that the book hasn’t been written yet in cannabis. That’s No. 1,” he says. “And every day I get up, I’m helping to write it. So, that’s the biggest one for me. I’m a big storyteller kind of guy. In years from now when I’m looking back, there will be some great stories that come out of this, and there’s already been a ton. So, every day there’s a new one.”

Tony Lange is associate editor for Cannabis Business Times.