Luke Wilson is the Director of Field Operations for Canna Advisors, a consultancy firm that helps cannabis entrepreneurs get licensed, optimize facility design, standardize operations, and maximize on their business development opportunities.
In this interview, Luke shares his experience transitioning into the cannabis space, talks about his early work in the industry planning and building cultivation facilities in Canada, gives tips for entrepreneurs who are in the process of building out their own commercial cannabis grow site, and a lot more!
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Ganjapreneur: What was your background before coming to the cannabis space, and what first prompted your transition?
Luke Wilson: I’m just a country boy from Alabama who got lucky.
Growing up, I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life (as they say), but I always believed I was going to do something big, you know, make a real impact on the world somehow. I’ve never known how or what, I’ve just believed that if I completed college (which I did), kept my head down, worked hard, and put myself in alignment for good things, good things would happen. Eventually they did, but not without a lot of challenges along the way.
First, my family owned and operated a private industrial engineering and construction company for 17 years where I developed the skills to manage multiple projects, budgets, employees, and customers in high pressure and demanding environments. My father did not make it easy on me, always insisting that my brother and I take on the most difficult projects and clients, learning every trade (in the field) from electrical and instrumentation, to piping, concrete, and steel.
My unique background provides perspective and a practical knowledge of construction means and methods that few of my peers can match, if any. My background provides over a decade of progressive and practical experience pertaining to the engineering, construction, and overall management of capital development/improvement projects spanning a variety of markets from heavy industrial manufacturing (such as pulp and paper) to bio-pharmaceuticals (cGMP cleanrooms), cannabis, and recently, commercial distribution.
The Transition: little did I know, “the transition” began in 2012 — two years before I entered the cannabis industry.
I was working one of the worst projects of my life down in Victoria, Texas. It was 100 degrees and 100% humidity as we worked to rebuild a boiler two hours north of the Mexico border. I was living in a hotel for about 4.5 months and doing what I could to keep my marriage together from afar. During my time there I met the man who would go onto change my life 2 years later when he offered me a job with Privateer Holdings.
The “transition” was a legit God-given miracle at a time in my life that I desperately needed it. At the time, I was working at a papermill in Evadale, Texas (equally as challenging as Victoria but more swampy). It was about 5am as I drove down the farm road that led to the mill. The humidity so thick the inside of the windshield was literally dripping onto the dash. It was the same lonely drive I’d made a number of times before, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was on my way to “making a real impact on the world.” I was working hard. I was doing my best to make wise decisions in life, career, and in faith, but I was miserable. I began to pray, and quite honestly it was more of a yell. I yelled at God and angrily shed a tear as I drove to yet another nasty paper mill for another week of “rewarding” work.
At 1pm that day, via Linked-In (initially), God showed up in the form of a man I’d met two years prior in Victoria, Texas. The man who showed up had sold his business in TX and moved to Seattle in search of alternative treatment for his young son who was battling leukemia at the time. He opened a newspaper and saw an article about Privateer Holdings receiving a license to operate in Canada, and noticed their office was just up the street. After a brief visit, my friend from the past made an investment, signed on as Managing Director, and shortly thereafter called me in Birmingham, AL, and asked if I was interested in moving to Nanaimo, BC to build/develop the world’s 2nd cGMP certified facility for the manufacture and research of medical cannabis.
My response, “I wish I could tell you that I can’t be there before Monday, but we’ve got quite a bit to sort out before I start thinking about an international position on Vancouver Island.” $30M dollars, 14 months and many 100 hr weeks later, I left Nanaimo BC with Tilray, the world’s 2nd state of the art facility built for this purpose and employing ~120 local residents. Tilray is now one of the top LP’s in Canada, the 1st cannabis company on the NYSE, and exists in nine countries on five continents.
After my experience building Tilray I was certain of two things:
- I’d found my calling, and I was going to be the best capital development consultant in the space.
- I had a lifelong dream of raising my family in the mountains of Colorado, and now I had a proven skill set that could support my family there.
As Director of Field Operations for Elevated Standard, LLC, a business unit of Canna Advisors, I direct the team who serves as an extension of the owner, representing their best interests through engineering, construction, staffing, and operational startup/improvement. Working for the leading consulting firm in the space, and living in Colorado, is exactly where I want to be.
When planning or constructing a cannabis grow facility, what are the typical steps in that process?
What are the typical steps people take, or what are the RIGHT steps to take?
Let’s go with the latter… Whether manufacturing indoors, or in a greenhouse, cannabis cultivation must be addressed for what it is — an industrial-agricultural manufacturing process.
The big mistake I’m seeing cultivators make (over and over again) is hiring commercial design build contractors to execute an industrial-ag project. The right approach entails spending smart money for detailed design engineering on the front end, which ensures a smoothly executed construction project on the backend.
How might regulations — and the way they can differ so wildly based on what city, state, province, or country you’re operating in — affect your design process?
The lack of consistency between jurisdictions creates major challenges for the design process because each presents their own unique facility requirements.
State applicants are often scurrying to secure property that meets the regulatory requirements and are typically left with little time to develop well thought-out facility layouts, or realistic engineering and construction budgets.
As a result, a litany of project change orders will typically leave the average Owner/Winner scrambling to find more money to pay for things that weren’t considered, or perhaps weren’t valued during the planning and design phase.
Could you describe your role at Canna Advisors?
I was hired to work with Sue Corser-Jensen to build a new service division for Canna Advisors (CA). Traditionally, CA has been in the business of developing winning applications for cultivation, processing, and dispensary licenses. This new division will go the next step and help clients beyond the time they win a license. We now offer clients owners’ rep services, overseeing everything from engineering and construction, to operational startup, including branding and marketing, staffing, SOP development and implementation, as well as training and operational startup inspection preparation.
What are some other important things that are often overlooked in the construction of a cannabis cultivation site?
Honestly, I’ve seen it all, but it’s not always “overlooking,” often times it’s owners making choices without fully understanding the long-term effects of those decisions or choosing to ignore the potential negative impact of a decision in order to reduce their initial capital investment.
For example: I’ve seen multi-million-dollar facilities with top notch environmental control, but the locker rooms were in an adjacent building; employees would literally change into their work gear and then go back outside before entering the manufacturing and cultivation space. That is just absurd.
In another instance, I’ve seen breakrooms with direct access to the manufacturing and cultivation floor; breakrooms are a microbiological nightmare, and this shows the architect’s lack of experience in designing clean manufacturing environments.
While a lot of teams struggle to get the floor plan to efficiently allow flow of material and personnel, I see the most mistakes and shortcuts taken around equipment selection, and environmental and process controls, which is the most critical engineering to take place in the construction of a cultivation manufacturing facility. When done correctly, every piece of equipment, and every instrument in the building is tied back to a Building Automation System (BAS) or a Direct Digital Controller (DDC), allowing the Director of Facilities/Maintenance to see what is going on around the facility at any given time. The BAS provides alarms when a room or a piece of equipment is not operating within the programmed specifications or range of tolerance. It also allows for remote access into your facility and in some cases, remote control of equipment as well.
What are some of the specific differences in regulations that make your job more difficult?
In most cases the design/construction requirements don’t vary a whole lot. Most states require separate entrances for processing/extraction, and cultivation. We typically use facility design and access controls to accomplish this. The real challenge we have is when states implement a rule that pre-determines the number of plants a cultivator can have under one license, and when they limit the products an entity can manufacture and distribute.
While I oversee the development of our clients’ businesses, that’s not all we do at Canna Advisors. First, we write the business plan, building the financial model, then develop the application. Our technical writing staff has quite the challenge of writing to the specific regulations in each state. There’s no specific portion of the application that is more difficult; however for our writers, the challenge is often conveying the right message within a certain amount of words allowed, or without the opportunity to provide the necessary attachments.
What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
“Know it All” people. People will always be the most challenging aspect of any job, but their stories and development can be the most rewarding.
What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far in the cannabis industry?
Watching Tilray go public on the NYSE was the most rewarding experience I’ve had to date, though I must’ve missed my thank you call from the team (LOL!). I was the 3rd employee at Tilray, and the 16th at Privateer Holdings. I spent many sleepless nights taking Tilray from a poorly planned commercial construction project to a well-oiled machine that could meet the requirements required for cGMP certification.
What advice would you offer somebody who is considering jumping into the industry?
Depending on what role said person is interested in, my opinion will vary. Overall, though, the cannabis industry is by far the most exciting industry I’ve ever worked in. It may be chock full of snake oil, but I’ve never seen so many people actually passionate about what they’re doing. That alone is enough reason to enter any industry on some level. That said, I’m typically dealing with investors, C suite execs, as well as the various leadership positions within an organization. The industry isn’t just for “cannabis” folks, it’s for mainstream adults seeking mainstream employment within a highly competitive and highly regulated market.