Florida Firsts

Features - Cover Story

Trulieve’s founders achieved many cannabis milestones in The Sunshine State by forming a large-scale operation built on 30-plus years of horticulture knowledge and a team attitude.

October 31, 2017

Hackney Nursery's George Hackney has a fondness for teamwork, which led to the partnership with other qualified nurseries: Simpson Nursery and May Nursery. The three nurserymen (pictured here) form Trulieve's "grow team," which oversees cultivation.
All photos by TREW Media, Inc.

Since the Florida legislature legalized medical cannabis in 2014 and approved five vertically integrated licensees in late 2015, the team at cannabis provider Trulieve has experienced several significant firsts. Trulieve was the first licensee to have cultivation facilities up and running, first to open a dispensary in the state, first to serve a patient, first to make a home delivery, and first to sell statewide. Several more “firsts” are set for the days and months ahead.

When George Hackney, Sr. pauses to reflect on Trulieve’s success and how far the company has come in such a short time, he’s filled with gratitude for the team. Teamwork—effective, efficient teamwork based on family and trust—is a hallmark of Hackney and the two additional nursery partners who formed the cannabis company. “This is an amazing venture where all the people involved are extremely involved, from seed to sale,” Hackney says.

Behind Trulieve’s Beginnings

As president of Hackney Nursery, a wholesale Florida plant nursery known for large-scale production of high-quality ornamental landscape plants, Hackney didn’t foresee medical marijuana in his future. However, Florida’s application requirements made many of the state’s nurserymen take notice. Applicants were restricted to nurseries that held a license in effect for at least 30 years and had a minimum of 400,000 nursery plants in production. This limited qualified applicants to those nurseries in the highest production category recognized under Florida’s nursery laws. Those requirements, plus a required $5 million performance bond, curbed the field of applicants significantly.

Florida’s initial plan called for a lottery system that divided the state into five regions, with just one license per region. In Hackney Nursery’s Northwest region, only five nurseries qualified to apply. Hackney discussed the opportunity at length with his four sons who work with him in the nursery business and with extended family members in the medical profession. “They were very encouraging on marijuana being a benefit for people with certain illnesses,” he recalls. The state’s initial focus on children with seizure disorders also helped convince him to pursue a license.

Hackney’s fondness for teamwork led to meetings with other qualified nurseries. In the end, Hackney Nursery, Simpson Nursery and May Nursery joined forces to compete for the license for Florida’s Northwest region. Legal challenges to the state’s system resulted in several changes and delays in the award process, but the main requirements of a current nursery license dating back at least 30 years and 400,000 nursery plants in production stayed, as did the allegiance between the three nurseries. In November 2015, the self-funded cannabis company was approved to cultivate and distribute marijuana. Cultivation facilities were in operation in just 70 days, and Trulieve opened Florida’s first medical cannabis dispensary in July 2016, in nearby Tallahassee.

Building a Six-Legged Stool

The three nurserymen heading up Trulieve’s family-run nursery partners brought decades of plant-growing experience to the venture. George Hackney, Sr., Thad Beshears of Simpson Nurseries and Richard May of May Nursery—all board members—form a three-man “grow team” that oversees Trulieve’s cultivation. The men work closely with Trulieve’s cultivation manager, George Hackney, Jr., and his team. There are no figureheads in the Trulieve organization; the nursery partners are actively involved in cultivation and growing decisions.

The trio understood that their future success depended on augmenting their nursery and plant expertise with someone who could navigate the complex regulatory and administrative aspects of this new industry, including the initial 2,000-page application. Kim Rivers, a self-described “recovering lawyer” with a background in entrepreneurship, mergers and acquisitions, and security law, became what Hackney refers to as the “fourth leg” of a proverbial stool, adding strength and balance to the company. From Northwest Florida herself, Rivers brought legal and administrative expertise, a passion for startups and a driving energy and enthusiasm to her role as Trulieve CEO.

The next addition to the team was Jason Pernell, “the fifth leg of the stool” and now Trulieve COO. A Florida native with extensive California cannabis production and processing experience, and a college acquaintance of Rivers, Pernell brought an experienced team with him, including Craig Kirkland, an engineer who, Rivers notes, has done defense work for NASA and now heads up Trulieve’s processing operations.

The final leg on Hackney’s six-legged stool was Ben Atkins, an investor who works closely with Trulieve dispensaries and the company’s physician outreach and education. Also a Floridian, Atkins brought cannabis dispensing knowledge to the table as an owner of 11 California dispensaries. He also owns 27 nursing homes across the country, and has extensive experience working with physicians, as well as patients. Trulieve continues to add depth to its roster by seeking out individuals they feel can add valuable skills and experience to the company.

Facility Establishment and Expansion

Being self-funded and having a team built on trust and longstanding relationships has been crucial to Trulieve’s ability to move quickly and respond to the market. “We’re the owners. We’re making the decisions. We’re not answering to some financial group saying, ‘Can we get more money to do this?’ And we invest everything back into this business,” Hackney says.

Rivers agrees the company’s access to capital has been a key strength. “We consider ourselves very fortunate that we’ve been able to focus on building a business and on our patients, as opposed to having to focus on raising capital,” she says.

Trulieve has approximately 102,000 square feet of cultivation space at two primary locations, with near-continuous expansion underway. “Our expansion plan is to always stay approximately 45 to 60 days ahead of the market, and so our expansion is just systematic in terms of doing an additional parcel of 20,000 square feet at a time,” Rivers explains. “We’re getting ready to start another building right now, as an example. And, as we start that building, we’ll have another building kind of shift in, and then we’ll continue down that path as the patient base continues to grow.”

Hackney stresses how important positive ties to the local community, developed over years of operating nurseries in the area, have been to the company’s success and expansion speed. “We could not have done this without our local Gadsden County administrators behind us. The county was super supportive and really worked with us to make sure we could hit our deadlines. Some counties, if we tried to do this, we’d still be trying to get permits,” he says. Gadsden County is home to two of the three partner nurseries, Trulieve’s initial cultivation facility and the expansion facility, which sits on land where some of Hackney’s required 400,000 nursery plants once grew.

From the left: Jason Pernell, chief operating officer; Thad Beshears, director; Craig Kirkland, research and development; George Hackney, Sr., director; Richard May, director; Kim Rivers, chief executive officer. All are founders of the company.

Transition to Cannabis

Trulieve’s nursery partners all specialize in ornamental landscape plants, from roses and perennials to woody shrubs and trees. Hundreds of acres of nursery plants grow outdoors in containers. Overhead irrigation supplies most of the water needs, while dry, slow-release fertilizers provide the bulk of plant nutrients. Much of the automation useful in this type of nursery environment isn’t necessary in cannabis production.

All Trulieve cultivation is done in indoor facilities with every aspect of the environment fully controlled. While many traditional nursery production methods don’t transfer to indoor cannabis cultivation, extensive expertise in plant fertility and watering practices, plant health, pests and diseases all do, as do decades of experience in cross-scheduling of crops, propagation scheduling and similar skills. The Trulieve team regularly taps into the plant expertise at the three nurseries for insight and advice relating to cannabis production.

The cultivation team finds that growing cannabis is not far removed from traditional nursery crops. “They’re very similar. The biggest difference is that, in our original nurseries, we obviously spray pesticides and fungicides,” Hackney says. In contrast, the Trulieve team focuses on organic growing methods, including the use of biologicals. No traditional pesticides or fungicides are used. “... In Florida, that’s a challenge,” Hackney says.

Another major difference is the growth speed of the cannabis crop. It’s much closer to the production cycle of greenhouse growers focused on annual bedding plants, such as marigolds and petunias, than the one- to two-year production cycle for many container-grown shrubs and trees. “Cannabis is a much quicker crop than we’re used to growing,” Hackney explains. Even so, he points out that growing cannabis is still growing a plant in a container.

Eliminating any chance of cross contamination between rooms has been a priority at the facilities as well. Rivers explains the company’s system of color-coordinated scrubs. “We have a service that comes in with scrubs, and folks in certain areas wear specific colors. So, we’re even that strict,” she says. “We don’t want, for example, the potting crew or the pruning crew going from room to room without a complete change.” With different colors, oversights stand out fast.

Another area of special focus for the grow team is learning and understanding the intricacies of different strains. Hackney says the team currently has approximately 50 strains available for use, not all in production. No proprietary strains are in development. Instead, the team is focused on refining its growing techniques to maximize the existing strains and optimize their medicinal qualities. “Learning the different strains, we’re documenting and grasping that now. What little nuances we can do to enhance a particular strain and that type of thing,” Hackney explains.

Clockwise starting far left: A Trulieve grower mixing fertilizer. He is in building 1, where employees wear dark green scrubs. Each employee must wear a different color uniform in each different building—a way to cross-check that employees are doing all they can to prevent cross-contamination throughout the facility; George Hackney, Sr. accompanied by members of his team; Trulieve dispensary employee; A Trulieve cultivation employee; Two cultivation employees mixing fertilizer solution; Trulieve dispensary employee.

Patient Empowerment and Product Development

As Trulieve CEO, Rivers is called on to wear many hats, sometimes all at once, but staying connected to the company’s patient base and empowering those patients with information is a priority. As Hurricane Irma came through the area in early September, the company’s website and social media pages maintained a constant stream of information for patients concerned about getting medication. It’s not unusual, during a hurricane or any time, for a patient’s Facebook comment to get a prompt response from Rivers herself.

“One of our mottos at Trulieve is that we grow one patient at a time,” Rivers says. “In Florida, our patient base are some of the most vulnerable population, and it’s really important that we respond to them not only in a timely manner, but in a very compassionate manner. I think it’s incredibly important, especially in this current phase, for us to be very, very connected with our patient base and responsive in setting that high level of customer service experience. I’m very proud of our team and our ability to be responsive in real-time to patients.”

The company’s responsiveness extends to product development, which Florida requires licensees to do in-house. Rivers sees product diversity as extremely important. She shares a story about a mother’s plea for a product not offered in Florida at the time. The Trulieve team came together, created a new formulation that provided the needed THC:CBD ratio via a specialized, proprietary extraction process, and was able to positively impact the child’s prognosis through the new product while he was still hospitalized.

Trulieve’s processing division, headed by Craig Kirkland, consists primarily of scientists and engineers. The company runs an ethanol extraction process, with proprietary modifications designed to enhance and refine the extraction process and increase the quality of the end product. One example is the company’s TruClear pure cannabis oil extract concentrate, which has a THC to CBD ratio of 20:1. The addition of CO2 extraction is planned for the near future. Research and development is a top priority for the team. Many products, including the custom product created for the mother in need, are being developed for future mass production. Trulieve offers 46 SKUs at this point. Several product developments new to the Florida market will be announced within the next few months.

Another example of patient empowerment is the vast information available on the company’s website. Trulieve products are tested both in-house and by a third-party laboratory. The company has a separate third-party company audit its internal testing process and protocols as well. When patients requested access to laboratory testing results for Trulieve products, Trulieve responded by posting all results on its website. “Instead of telling folks to just trust us, we made the decision to provide them with the information we have,” Rivers says. “This was a perfect example of the patient driving business decisions.”

Dispensary and Delivery Expansion

With 10 brick-and-mortar stores up and running throughout the state as this issue went to press, Trulieve plans three more dispensary openings before the year ends. Several more are set for the near future, as the company works toward a goal of having a dispensary within a one-hour drive of almost every Florida resident. Trulieve’s online store offers in-store pickup and next-day delivery in most markets, with a same-day delivery model quickly taking shape.

Rivers sees physician outreach and education—and Ben Atkins’s expertise in that realm—as extremely important to continued dispensary growth. “Ben brought to the team a wealth of experience and knowledge not only in the cannabis dispensary sector, but also in dealing with medical professionals, which has been vital to our ability to connect with physicians and understand how physician communication can work effectively,” she says.

Only 1,043 Florida physicians were qualified to certify patients to receive medical marijuana at press time. Atkins works closely on physician relationships to increase that number. Trulieve’s outreach includes one-on-one and seminar contacts, as well as a physician-only online resource, DrTrulieve.com, where physicians find a searchable database of medical marijuana research, dosing and diagnostic information, and other helpful resources.

“At first, it’s very difficult for doctors,” Atkins says. “There’s such a stigma attached to it, but once they try it or talk with someone who has, that changes. It starts with that one brave physician that does it.” Atkins’ hospice background has left him a powerful spokesman for the positive impact cannabis can have. “I’ve seen the negative impact of pharmaceuticals on people at the end of their life,” Atkins shares.

Helping doctors and patients learn about the potential of cannabis for treatment of young and old, and helping connect physicians and patients is a key part of Atkins’s role, and something Rivers views as a necessity. “We believe it’s part of our corporate responsibility to be a thought leader in this field,” she says. “We want our patients to be educated. We want our physicians to be educated, and we feel like it’s part of our responsibility to assist in that education process.”

Looking Ahead

Since Florida awarded its five original licenses, legal challenges resulted in two more. In the legislative session that ended in June, 10 additional licenses were added. Five of those have been awarded, and the remainder are expected to be awarded soon, leaving Florida with 17 medical cannabis licensees as 2018 begins. Future licenses are set to increase automatically as the state’s patient registry, currently at 37,830 patients, expands. The registry has more than doubled since January 2017, when the state’s addition of 10 qualifying “debilitating medical conditions” took effect.

Rivers is very mindful of how quickly things can change in the state. “We’re in an industry where [in] each [legislative] session, there’s a possibility that something could fundamentally change. ... So, it forces us to be even more nimble than you would have to be otherwise, even in a startup environment,” she explains.

She hopes to see the legislature loosen product and processing restrictions to allow additional products, including whole flower, on the shelves. Currently, providers are largely limited to oil products. Smoking cannabis remains illegal in Florida, though medical vaping is allowed. Rivers believes collaboration with other businesses would improve product diversity for patients as well.

Hackney hopes to see Trulieve continue to grow in importance to the state of Florida, and to Trulieve employees and the communities the company serves, but Trulieve’s patients are foremost in his mind. “Thad, Richard and me, obviously, we have a huge interest in Trulieve, and we want to make sure it succeeds,” he says. “But the patient aspect is very near to us. We understand that we’re producing medicine for patients, and the responsibility of being one of only five original licensees for a state the size of Florida remains an awesome responsibility.”

Hackney sees some parallels in industry growth between cannabis and ornamental plants. The leading brands in today’s ornamental nursery industry operate on a scale that would have been unfathomable to many of the mom-and-pop business owners that started the industry years ago. Hackney anticipates a similar transition ahead for mom-and-pops in the cannabis industry as large producers scale their brands to new levels. He believes the change will happen much more quickly with cannabis than it did with nursery stock, based on the size of the large-scale cannabis companies already entering the playing field of this relatively new industry.

There’s no doubt in Hackney’s mind that the Trulieve team will continue to succeed. “It’s taken a team to move this thing to where it is,” he says, and in Trulieve’s future, Hackney sees more of the same.

Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional.