What do Buckeye Relief—an Ohio cannabis producer and extraction company that earned top marks from the state for its cultivation license application—and presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton have in common?
They all have been under the protective umbrella of one Lewis Merletti, Buckeye Relief’s director of security.
Merletti has “among the most impressive security resumes in the country,” according to Buckeye Relief co-founder and CEO Andy Rayburn. Rayburn and Merletti are 15-year friends, but even with their history, Rayburn remained unsure what Merletti would say about joining Buckeye. After all, Merletti was the 19th director of the United States Secret Service and has protected his fair share of high-value targets during his 25 years of government service, as well as during his military service before that, when he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam.
The two discussed the opportunity on Rayburn’s back patio in 2016, even before the Buckeye project was off the ground. As Rayburn described his plan, a look from Merletti forced him to pause. “‘Lew, what are you smiling about?’” Rayburn recalls asking, to which Merletti replied, chuckling, “‘Well, I can’t wait to tell my Secret Service buddies that I am the security director for the leading cannabis company in the state of Ohio.”
One of the biggest factors influencing Merletti’s decision to get involved with Buckeye was the opportunity to work with his friend. “[Rayburn’s] high caliber of leadership has positively influenced every aspect of this operation and the relationships we were able to create with the community along the way,” Merletti said in an email interview with Cannabis Business Times.
With Merletti calling the security shots, Buckeye was able to go “above and beyond state security requirements,” Rayburn says. “We did that for the security of our employees, and we did that to send a strong message to our community that this was a very, very safe environment.”
After joining the team, Merletti approached his task of securing the Buckeye Relief complex the same way he approached any other security assignment he was given: by assessing his priorities.
“Whether I was serving in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces 5th Group in Vietnam, or protecting three Presidents both domestically and abroad, the immediate top priority has always been personal safety (human life),” Merletti says. “[Securing] product or valuables [is] the second priority. The additional priorities, in this case, include the relationships [with], and protection of, the community as a whole.”
With those clears objectives in mind, Merletti began building a staff that could work with those priorities. His first hire was Matt Winningham, a former Navy veteran who transitioned into the private sector in 2003 and went on to train international agencies, Fortune 500 corporate security teams, and ultra-high net worth family offices in “technical counterintelligence.” Winningham took on the role of on-site security director and relocated his family from Tennessee for the Buckeye job.
“I have worked with Winningham for years in the past, and trust his judgment and integrity to represent me any time, especially in my absence,” Merletti says. And as his only direct hire, “I knew he would complete the mission to my high expectations and requirements,” Merletti adds.
Buckeye’s security team continued to grow under Merletti’s and Winningham’s supervision. The duo hired former federal law enforcement agents, former Army Special Forces members, former Navy SEALs, former members of the U.S. intelligence community and local career security professionals familiar with Northeast Ohio, Merletti says. Buckeye’s security team has a combined “half century’s worth of ‘tip-of-the-spear’ security experience,” including experience in 10 different American cannabis markets.
Those security experts conducted multiple rounds of risk assessments—“an evaluation of the likelihood of an event weighed against its impact,” as Merletti describes—that included site surveys and analyses of open-source intelligence (OSINT) and less publicly available information.
Security in Action
Risk assessments in hand, Buckeye put its security plan into action. The process was reasonably straightforward, the company says, thanks in part to the security staff’s level of experience and the fact that they were all on the same page. In an email interview with CBT, Winningham said one of the biggest challenges was in bridging the gap between security staff and the rest of Buckeye’s team.
“Most people in industrial farming operations are not used to working in this [highly secured] environment,” Winningham says. To help avoid conflicts, “the security team must have well above average public relations skills to ensure they are not perceived to be limiting [the cultivation team’s] ability to get their job done.”
At least two armed guards are on duty during operating hours, including overtime, Rayburn says, and only the security guards can let visitors onto the property. In addition to the armed security agents, Buckeye’s facility uses more than 500 technical devices and controls such as cameras, sensors, locks, gates, vaults, safes, barricades and barbed-wire fences “to provide multiple layers of defense,” Winningham says.
He notes, however, that having multiple layers of defense means nothing if the individual components are not interconnected. “You have to look at security as a system,” he says. “When we talk about a security system, we mean the integration of people, tools and technology to achieve a cost-effective, appropriate defense against a defined threat. … Security is not just a tall fence or a tough guy.” To avoid being an easy target for theft, it’s important that the system projects “a formidable defense so any rational criminal will think twice and take their misdeeds elsewhere.”
A security system must “learn, adapt and improve as the environment changes or as you gather more information,” Winningham adds. Risk assessments should be happening continually. “Our security plan … is a dynamic, constantly evolving plan, geared to address and mitigate risks associated with the industry as it grows and matures,” Merletti says.
For example, when a significant floor plan change was required in cultivation and drying rooms, “we basically had to re-design 25 percent of our CCTV [closed-circuit television] cameras,” requiring a new risk assessment, Merletti says. Compared to the challenges of planning a presidential visit to an active war zone “these issues were easily mitigated and resolved. I think the more difficult challenge deals with predicting trends related to a new industry, and with new opportunities for malicious activity,” he says.
Guarding the Community
Merletti’s third priority, protecting the community and the business’s relationships with it, meant making sure “that our business and operation would serve to benefit the community and not be a source of any negative impacts.”
“This is a business that we all need to do all we can to make sure that the public understands that the cultivation facilities are safe, that processing facilities are safe and that dispensaries are safe,” Rayburn says. Merletti set the tone from the onset, the CEO says, by getting local authorities and law enforcement officials involved in the security design process.
“I probably spent the most time with Chief [Larry] Reik of the Eastlake Police Department, sharing our ideas, seeking input and verifying that our security operational plans, building designs, protocols and procedures were a fit with his own organization’s philosophies,” Merletti says. “It was very important to have local law enforcement support and feedback.”
Winningham says this approach removed any hint of adversarial attitudes between the cannabis company and local police. Beyond collaborating on SOPs, “we have scheduled joint training sessions coming up on the calendar, and we approach the immediate community’s security as a team.” Indeed, part of Buckeye’s dynamic security plan includes live exercises to train for different security threats. Winningham brings in security consultants to consult, audit and simulate break-ins, robberies, internal thefts, among other criminal incidents.
“Criminals attack where they see the weakest link,” Winningham says. As such, “we’re constantly working to prevent theft and the associated threat to employees, customers and the surrounding community as a whole.”
In addition to working closely with local law enforcement, Buckeye Relief began every community meeting with Merletti presenting the facility’s security plan. Having a security expert like a former Secret Service director available to the community to address any concerns before and during the construction process helped win acceptance from Eastlake residents, Rayburn says.
That’s what most impresses Rayburn about his company’s security: the caliber of his staff. It’s because of that staff’s professionalism and experience that he can say he has “never seen tighter security in any cannabis cultivation facility in the country.”
“The only thing we haven’t been able to keep out ... is the Canadian geese that hang out on our property,” Rayburn says with a laugh, knowing that if geese are his biggest issue, he can rest assured that his facility, employees and community are secure.