Larry Smith
Photos by Jacob Kepler

About three years ago in New York City, Larry Smith decided to roll the dice on a cultivation company in his hometown of Las Vegas.

At the time, Nevada was kicking off its medical cannabis program. When Smith returned to Las Vegas, he and his childhood friend and business partner Shawn Holman hatched a plan to create a cultivation business that represented both culture and caring.

Smith and Holman’s background and experiences growing up in Las Vegas play a significant role in their approach to the market.

While GFive is in the early stages of cultivation, Smith, the company’s CEO and marketing brains, believes GFive’s growth potential is high now that the state legalized adult-use. The company has planned carefully, and places a strong emphasis on producing high-quality, medicinal-grade cannabis.

GFive is a small start-up with lofty goals—one of which is to produce 250 to 300 pounds’ worth of product per month, according to Smith. GFive is planning to expand its grow space by 30,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet in early 2018 to accommodate recreational demand.

Cannabis Business Times writer Jonathan Katz spoke with Smith and Holman, GFive’s chief operating officer and lead cultivator, to learn GFive’s plans for Las Vegas’ evolving cannabis industry.

Shawn Holman

Katz: What’s your background, and why did you decide to enter the cultivation business?

Smith: I have been in business for about 18 or 19 years. I own a factoring company (which purchases debt for doctors who don’t want to wait for personal injury cases to settle).

This is something that was intriguing to me. I grew up around cannabis. For us, it was more than a business. It’s a culture. And I never understood why the police or certain authorities would go after something that I thought was so harmless. I actually thought it calmed people down and got people in a better space in their life—in a better comfort zone.

Katz: After you decided to enter the cultivation business, what were your next steps?

Smith: We took our time. We wanted to build a facility that would be beneficial to the community. We didn’t just run in and get a building. Shawn was telling me a lot of the buildings already up in Las Vegas are going to have problems. They’re older buildings. We built our building from the ground up. We have 10,000 square feet, and we’re growing right now. We put plants in there [in early September]. … We want to come to the market really strong.

For a lot of people, I feel like these are money grabs. And this is medicine for us. So we want to make sure we do this right. It’s not about the money. We make money other places. [Editor’s note: Holman is an electrician by trade, and Smith owns the factoring company.] And we don’t let money determine our morals and our practices. We want to make sure that we have good, clean product that we put to market that could help someone.

Left to right: Shawn Holman, COO, Larry Smith, CEO, Damon Dash, Marketing Consultant, and Jamahrey Brown reviewing inventory.

Katz: Why did you decide to build the facility from the ground up rather than locating in an existing site?

Smith: This is a building that was designed for growing. … For us, it was just natural to build it. We wanted a nice, clean, sterile building, so [we wouldn't] have any contaminants. … Shawn did an excellent job. With him having an electrical background and AC being so important, especially here in Las Vegas with temperatures reaching 102 to 105 degrees for several days in September, we wanted to make sure we have everything in this building that’s going to make the plant thrive.

And we felt like building it from the ground up was probably the best move.

We toured around to different areas in Colorado, Arizona and the Bay Area, and we saw the good things and bad things. We sat down and structurally engineered it and built it out the way we felt it should be—taking [into consideration] all the good and bad components of other people’s grows. And that’s the good thing about the cannabis industry. People were welcoming us in to show us and to see the technology. For the most part, people were very open about what worked for them and what didn’t work for them.

Katz: Tell me about your sanitation process. What steps are involved and why is this important?

Holman: We wipe down walls with a 10-percent bleach and 91-percent alcohol solution. Everyone wears full protective gear and booties before entering the facility to ensure the grow is free of contaminations, bacteria, any outside elements. [We] sterilize all machinery.

The team has been handpicked and thoroughly briefed and educated on the process. We are consistently washing and scrubbing hands. No one can touch anything without nylon gloves. The space is also cleaned three times a day—morning, afternoon and night.

Jamahrey Brown, horticulturist assistant, recording inventory and tracking changes.

Katz: Can you tell me about the types of technology you’ve installed, including your air-purification process?

Holman: GFive has 125 tons of AC in the building. We have seven layers of filters—five of those are carbon charcoal filtration air purifiers, working in conjunction with the ultraviolet lights and carbon filters to further purge and eliminate microbials in the air. They work with one another to help create a sterile environment conducive to growing clean, high-quality, premium cannabis.

We also have installed a state-of-the-art nutrient-delivery system to automate and standardize the irrigation process, eliminating as much human error as possible to help ensure consistent results from batch to batch.

Katz: What does it mean to you to be a minority-owned business? What do you hope eventually comes out of that?

Smith: Growing up as a kid, let’s be honest, in my neighborhood, this is what they did. They sold cannabis. Police harassed us. If we had a joint or a dime bag of weed, we were harassed for that. And I think it’s important that they see we’re not bad people. We can do this. We can do it well. We can put up one of the best facilities in Las Vegas, and I’ll put that up against anyone in town. I just want people of color and minorities to understand we can do this, and there is a lane for you to get in it. … It’s unfortunate that I even have to say I’m an African-American company. We should just be a company. But the times we live in, we want to inspire and show people that we did it.

Katz: Can you tell me a little about your community involvement?

Smith: I grew up in area that was pretty much ravaged by drugs, particularly cocaine, back in the day. That’s why cannabis is different for me. In the 1980s and 1990s there were many budget cuts that affected ancillary and after-school programming in low-income neighborhoods, especially my home area, including after-school tutoring, sports activities and the arts,??leaving excess free time for neighborhood children and teenagers. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to bring some of those programs back—taking the money we’ve earned from cannabis and putting it back into the community in a positive way. I built a learning center in my neighborhood that’s pretty much available for the public. It’s free. We have a program there called Gentlemen by Choice, and it’s teaching young men how to become gentlemen. We teach them everything from how to build engines to AC units. Hopefully, in the future we can start partnering with colleges so we can help out with scholarship funds to have kids go to school on horticulture and agriculture scholarships. For me, it’s always been about giving back.

(Left) Maribel Mendez-Gomez, compliance manager and CFO, and (right) Ilizabeth Maius, horticulturist lead, communicating about compliance items.

Katz: You’re a marketing guy. Would you tell me a little more about the importance of brand building in the cannabis industry? What advice do you have for other growers on how to effectively build their brands?

Smith: I just had a conversation with a grower and an owner ... who told me that they don’t have an Instagram account—they just show their product. It was comical to me because branding is a huge part of any business. Obviously, you want to make sure you have the best product out there, but branding is a huge part of it. We want to create a lifestyle. So what you see on our Instagram and our Facebook page is really our life. We don’t want anything to be fake or phony about what we’re putting out there. We’re coming out with our own app within the next year that’s kind of like Netflix, [but for growers]. We’re going to start populating that with content for other growers around the country. …

For example, we have footage of us building—I wanted to show people the entire process of how we did it, the obstacles we faced. For the app, we want growers to share their own social content as well as produce our own. The app will feature lifestyle and cannabis news content, music and community initiatives. Content ideas will include the process of the growing and Q&A interviews from cannabis enthusiasts, cultivators and owners. We want GFive to be a resource for all lifestyle and cannabis information in an innovative way.

Katz: What type of strains do you plan to produce?

Holman: We are producing boutique connoisseur strains. Our hero strains are Tick Tick Boom and Pink Mink. Tick Tick Boom is named after Nevada Senator Tick Segerboom, who was a strong advocate for legalization of cannabis in Nevada. It’s our nod to him for the barrier he broke in the state. Pink Mink is named after New York rapper Cam’ron. He collaborated with GFive to create a very urban feel—nice and high. We came up with a sativa strain with the rapper’s signature color—pink. We incorporated a flower with a pink (color). Others include Cherry AK, a hybrid with rare, red offspring that comes off plants; Lavender Jones, which has a calming effect; a hybrid called Monster Cookie; Don Draper; Guice; Nevula; and Boss Hog.

Katz: What is the state of the Vegas market since recreational was legalized? Do you see that growing?

Smith: Vegas should be the new Amsterdam. We’re pretty progressive here. People come here to lose their inhibitions, and unlike Colorado, which we consider the grandfather of cannabis because they're the first ones to open the (recreational) legalization door for us. You have [more than 40] million people who come to Las Vegas every year, and if you have just 10 percent of those people who are consuming, that’s a pretty big number. Vegas is such a party town, and I think this coincides with the recreational portion of it. Right now, we’re fighting some issues with the hotels because people can’t consume in their rooms, and it’s one of those things that they’re working on—[re-]structuring of lounges here in Vegas.

Jonathan Katz is the owner of JSK Communications, freelance writer with more than 15 years' experience