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Trent Woloveck: Automation Equipment Isn’t There Yet

As Jushi increases production, it will require more powerful automation to prevent bottlenecks.

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This week, Trent Woloveck, chief commercial director at Jushi Holdings, discusses his evolution from a finance guy who dabbled in product development to a leader of a multi-state cannabis operator.

Woloveck first dipped his toe into the cannabis industry around 2009. He was helping out his cousin, who had recently taken over as an owner/operator of a small cannabis operation in Colorado. 

With roots in finance, Woloveck solves problems from a quantitative perspective. As Colorado was preparing to legalize adult-use cannabis in 2014, Woloveck kept hearing about problems operators had procuring child-resistant packaging. He developed and patented a drawstring bag that was ASTM-approved for child resistance — and dove head-first into the cannabis industry. Interest in the bags led Woloveck to start his own company. He has sold millions of bags and even started running into a few copycats who "borrowed the concept," though he has yet to pursue any possible infringers for stealing the design. 

Woloveck went on to help create the American Cannabis Company (ACC), where he served as COO. At ACC, he helped individuals put together applications to obtain licenses. For example, he helped Dr. Kyle Kingsley win his first license in Minnesota. 

Woloveck procured licenses in 13 different states — the only one to evade him was New York, where he finished 11th out of 10 licenses awarded. He holds out hope for another chance once the state opens up. He also won one of the first five licenses issued in Florida. 

After ACC, he became president of TGS National, the company behind brands The Green Solution and Nectar Bee. The company had what he was looking for: a vertically integrated operator with experience, and he helped set up franchises for the company across the U.S.

In 2018, his experience and industry relationships led to the founding of Jushi. What started as a small team has grown into a company that reported $41.7 million in revenue in Q1 2021. 

Woloveck recalls the early days of Jushi trying to predict the future of cannabis, which he refers to as "Cannabis 3.0." While other companies were "gobbling up assets with no strategic direction," Jushi took a state-by-state analysis of the market to understand the intricacies in each state before making any moves. The jury is still out on his predictions for Cannabis 3.0. Still, Woloveck is encouraged by states that have seen the light regarding the opportunities in cannabis for job creation, infrastructure investment and tax revenue. 

Improving Operations

Jushi has operations in eight states run by local teams that oversee day-to-day operations. The company manages best practices via a Center of Excellence hub in Colorado that provides direction to the individual units. The hub is tasked with understanding everything from early-stage medical use to mature adult-use markets in every state, and the local teams manage day-to-day operations. 

"We're a compliance business that sells cannabis," Woloveck says, and the company takes that to heart by employing a staff of professionals from various industries. The idea is to pull in people from sectors at scale, like agriculture and food processing, and use them to help build a roadmap to scale cannabis operations. "We've seen the playbook in other markets, and we need to bring that back and make it work in cannabis."

Jushi operates large-scale facilities that span hundreds of thousands of square feet. The company needs employees who can manage hundreds of people, build-out management teams and improve operations by better understanding processes and bottlenecks. 

From a cultivation perspective, Jushi's biggest challenge is construction: specifically, building facilities fast enough. Woloveck says it takes about 34 weeks to build a plant with a double-stacked LED grow room. When designing the facility, builders need to understand specifics, like costs for water, fertigation and power. The pandemic added a few wrinkles, including supply chain problems, particularly in steel and HVAC, but Jushi has been fortunate to forecast some of the hiccups to get in front of potential shortfalls by buying bulk products wholesale. 

Automation Problems

According to Woloveck, one opportunity for Jushi is leveraging data: looking at strains that produce more per square foot to optimize operations and reduce costs. As Jushi finds ways to increase production, it will require more powerful automation to prevent bottlenecks. Woloveck admits that technology is quickly advancing, but it remains nowhere close to what he needs from an automation perspective. 

In Pennsylvania, Jushi's production spans 96,000 square feet with 30,000 square feet of canopy. The company plans on doubling and tripling that over the next 36 to 60 months, and Woloveck says the machinery that he has right now won't make that happen. It isn't easy because he knows that he will need more powerful and efficient equipment to scale, but he doesn't know what it will look like. He's relying on equipment manufacturers to make it happen and notes that the industry has a lot of room for innovation. 

Woloveck says, "If you're not innovating as a company, you're going to get left in the dust." 

Jushi struggles with common bottlenecks, including processing and packaging flower, as well as the amount of time and space dedicated to pre- and post-harvest processes. 

Still, Woloveck will continue to look for new ways to develop new and existing products more efficiently. The company's primary product line is flower, which accounts for 50% to 55% of sales. Pre-rolls are a big category for Jushi, along with vaporization and infused products. 

According to Woloveck, the next wave of cannabis products won't be a new technology, but rather a blend of cannabinoids and terpene profiles that fit into existing form factors. 

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