Ways ForwardGro Builds Strength From Adversity in Cannabis Market
November 10, 2020 | Geoffrey Marshall
By Janeen Wright for Greenhouse Grower
It is also certified for cultivation under the Americans for Safe Access’ (ASA) Patient Focused Certification (PFC) program. PFC is a non-profit, third-party certification program for the medical cannabis industry that helps patients and healthcare providers identify reliable, high-quality medical cannabis, businesses, products, and services.
Strength is born out of difficult situations. No one knows that from personal experience better than the team at ForwardGro, Maryland’s first licensed medical cannabis operator. At the same time, the team recognizes that moving forward and showing resilience in the face of trouble is worth every effort to provide medicinal cannabis to those who need it in the state of Maryland.
ForwardGro was the first grower in Maryland to build a facility, pass inspection, and get plants on the ground back in 2017. Today, the company is a confident and highly functioning organization focused on growing the absolute best medicine possible without distraction. This commitment has led to delivering consistent quality cannabis flowers to Maryland’s leading dispensaries each week without interruption.
“Nothing happens by accident,” says co-owner and CEO Gary Mangum. “Setting the bar high for product expectation and inspecting for what we expect at every level is what allows us to produce a high-quality product consistently with purpose and pride.”
Sometimes One Step Back is Two Steps Forward
Despite doing well today, ForwardGro has been through some rough patches. While that has been difficult, the company learned from its mistakes and is stronger today for its struggles.
In 2018, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) ordered ForwardGro to pay a fine for using banned pesticide products. Further investigation by the Maryland commission revealed employees did not have the proper PPE equipment and that there were problems with video surveillance of the crop. The fallout from this resulted in a product hold that was later lifted and a mandated leadership change. The CEO stepped down and divested his interests in the company while Mangum came out of early retirement to manage the company as its CEO. The MMCC also required a head grower change and instituted a two-year probationary period, that included 24 unannounced inspections, to get things back on track.
Mangum describes this latter part of 2018 as a miserable time, as the work was intense and involved rebuilding morale at the same time workforce changes were needed. It was important to him to push hard to make the needed improvements, in part to set an example of perseverance and resilience for his children, especially for his son Chase, whose rare form of epilepsy is one of the reasons Mangum originally invested in ForwardGro. The team that would remain and new hires have performed at a very high level.
In 2017 and coming out of 2018, employees transitioned out of ForwardGro for various reasons and personnel turnover hovered around 80%. What came out of that purge is a team more aligned with Mangum’s prior greenhouse-based experience. ForwardGro is now one of the most transparent growers in the state and proud of it. The company provides Certificates of Analysis (COAs) weekly for 100% of its independently tested product bound for dispensaries. Maryland caregivers and patients have access 24/7 to this information on the company website along with details on specific terpene combinations or potencies. It is also certified for cultivation under the Americans for Safe Access’ (ASA) Patient Focused Certification (PFC) program. PFC is a non-profit, third-party certification program for the medical cannabis industry that helps patients and healthcare providers identify reliable, high-quality medical cannabis, businesses, products, and services.
“I won’t make any excuses, but I will say the change was good in important ways,” Mangum says. “As we operate our business today, we are (almost) happy to have had the early MMCC experience. Walking the medical cannabis greenhouses today, I cannot think of a single place I have been or seen that would make me any prouder. There is zero doubt that this team operates a best-in-class business— in every aspect of the business.”
ForwardGro has followed the process laid out by the MMCC over the last two years and anticipates a favorable action at the end of the probationary period. The company has also tried to let its product speak for itself. The team has grown and harvested tens of thousands of plants, built on the backbone of strong genetics. ForwardGro’s cannabis flower and related products today represent a strong value and are in-demand at Maryland’s dispensaries. By providing COAs on the company website, ForwardGro has created consumer confidence through transparency. It has also tried to pass on the monetary savings growing in a greenhouse can provide to its customers, while asking dispensaries to do the same. The company continues to expand with the sustainable growth model it started with and has continued to hear favorable things related to its focus on sun-grown cannabis.
ForwardGro’s Secret Weapon
Co-owner Suzanne Quintero brought ForwardGro back to the basics after taking over as COO in 2018. Using key metrics and her extensive work experience, she rebuilt the company from the ground up, driving material changes and growing practice improvements with her strong leadership. She has focused on turning ForwardGro into a long-term sustainable business with growth opportunities.
Quintero has experience in managing, reviewing, and evaluating both tactical and strategic operational functions across a multitude of emerging industries. She was the logical choice to lead the ForwardGro enterprise, having worked with Co-owner Gary Mangum for more than 15 years in a former greenhouse life on the ornamentals side.
“Sue is an important owner and a true partner today,” Mangum says. “[ForwardGro’s] operating team, and especially our cultivation manager, have moved us beyond the traditional agricultural practices that I was accustomed to in the floriculture industry for so many years. Everything we do today is with purpose and pride.”
Doubling Output in the Face of COVID-19
ForwardGro has a strong management and operating team dedicated to producing high-quality product that carefully follows growing and post-harvest guidelines and operates in a sanitary environment. The company seeks to promote from within the organization whenever possible and has also attracted some strong individuals from outside the organization to complement its workforce. Turnover is now less than 10% annually. Mangum sees this as a big positive considering the substantial departures in the first 18 months of business.
Construction will wrap up soon on ForwardGro’s new processing facility once the MMCC review and licensing process are complete. The company plans to double its flower and trim output once the long-awaited phase-two facility comes online in 2021, according to Mangum. Land planning to further expand the company’s growing space is also happening.
ForwardGro exceeded its aggressive target goals for 2020, more than doubling its output from 2019. All that product reached patients, notwithstanding COVID-19. Maryland’s government designated medical cannabis as essential during the pandemic, immediately allowing cannabis companies to continue growing and creating the necessary medicine for patients. The MMCC worked cooperatively and effectively with each leg of the industry — grow, process, and dispense — to ensure safety and accountability with limited, to no disruption, in supply.
“In the end, sales have grown slightly faster than they were growing pre-COVID-19, and the state continues to add 200 patients a day,” Mangum says. “It appears lessons learned during the COVID-19 nightmare will accrue to the benefit of patients long term.”
During the early stages of COVID-19 lockdowns, like most, ForwardGro struggled temporarily to acquire pre-scheduled masks and gloves and made schedule and layout changes to avoid overcrowding in shared spaces. All things considered, though, the company experienced minimal interruptions to its operations.
Just a year ago, ForwardGro moved to cash-flow positive once the business got up and running and management, production, and processing practices were refined.
“Investors need to be prepared to aggressively finance operations as growing refinements are worked through,” Mangum says. “The federal tax treatment 280 E (legislation that created additional tax costs not faced by other industries and limits the industry’s ability to offer discounted supply to veterans and other underserved groups) has been said to serve as a punitive deterrent. It is an important area for near term future focus by Congress.”
What’s Ahead for ForwardGro
Five years have passed since the five partners established the original vision for ForwardGro. The thought and investment period required to build what is becoming one of Maryland’s strongest and most modern operations is ending. The many opportunities ForwardGro has had to listen and innovate are now becoming an important part of its future. As the company looks toward further growth and expansion, its focus on producing high-grade, quality medicinal cannabis won’t change. Neither will its quest to be a place where people want to work and where they see the benefits associated with producing medicine with a patient-first mindset.
Mangum has the resilience affirmation “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” taped to his desk. The slogan is an apt description of ForwardGro’s journey during the last couple of years. Its past struggles have brought strength and a brighter future.