Cannabis Wealth spoke to David Kirby of Avida Global about his journey from blue-chip consultancy to being CEO of a worldwide cannabis company.
I originally wanted to follow a more musical path, after studying music at uni and playing a lot of jazz, but I soon realised that I would be very happy, but very poor.
So I joined the graduate milk round and took a role with a small IT consultancy, where I spent a few years before moving to a company called Capgemini, a large French consultancy, where I stayed for 16 years and ending up on the UK Board and latterly the European Management Team.
Following that I was approached by Shell, and offered a global role with responsibility for their global projects whilst helping to re-shape the Global IT group – that was a fun few years based in the Netherlands and travelling all over the world.
It was then that I started thinking I wanted to do something smaller and more entrepreneurial, so I set up my own business with some colleagues, doing venture capital work with start-ups to accelerate them and bringing my skills from working with large companies to work with small companies.
I was doing that for 10 years, working with lots of exciting start-ups – and that’s how I ended up in the cannabis space.
A chance encounter
It all began at a fundraising day in London for a Canadian cannabis company.
My colleague happens to be married to a Colombian lady whose father owns one of the biggest cattle farms in the country.
The Canadian company were very keen to explore this land opportunity.
However, talking to them, I realised they knew no more about growing cannabis than we did, so we thought, why not just do it ourselves? And that was the start of Avida Global.
To be honest, all the business disciplines are exactly the same in terms of clear strategy, profit and loss, staff management – the only difference is I’m used to dealing with tech, and this is an organic crop.
The only other difference is it’s such a dynamic industry – there are some very good people in it, but also some very bad people that are just jumping on the bandwagon.
There’s a lot of noise, so you have to be able to focus and distance yourself from all that if you want to do it properly.
I suppose the other difference is I’m now the most popular guy in the village – I used to go to dinner parties and people would yawn and turn away when I told them what I did.
Now, when I tell them I’m the CEO of a global cannabis company, the whole table goes quiet and wants to find out more, even more so when I tell them I work in Colombia – I’ve become known locally as Don-David the drug lord.
One thing I’ve found is that, even just a few years ago, when I mentioned working in the cannabis industry, people would look at me strangely and assumed it was something dodgy.
Now, the landscape has changed and people think it’s exciting; often, they’ll know someone who’s involved, or who’s taking CBD.
The big thing that makes eyebrows raise is when I mention Colombia – most people have watched Narcos on TV and have this expectation of the country, and it’s not like that at all.
It’s a fantastic place, nothing like it was 30 years ago.
The Colombia connection has helped us immeasurably, as it has a wealth and depth of skills in pharma industry, from a Latin American perspective, because of all flora and fauna.
The government there has also taken medical cannabis very seriously, so when it was legalised in 2015, they set about fulfilling this vision that they would be the leader, especially as the country is on the equator, which is the best place to grow cannabis.
There is constant light for 365 days a year, so you get constant crops.
But if you look at the other equatorial places around the world, there’s no comparison.
Africa has no infrastructure, there’s a lack of skills, it’s politically unstable. In South East Asia, you could face the death sentence for growing cannabis.
So Colombia is the best place geographically and politically, as well as having that wealth of skills.
Creating a culture
I’m happy to lead from the top, but I needed to create a great team too – and Colombia was also the place to find this.
When we contacted global headhunting agency Michael Page, we found it had a specialist division just for medicinal cannabis.
Anywhere else, we would have had to import those skills, whereas in Colombia, it was on our doorstep, and that’s how we found our operations director and master grower, which are two critical roles.
They’re both incredibly experienced, incredibly knowledgeable people, which is how we’ve gone on to attract such a high calibre of staff to join us – we have team of 40 people and they’re all proud to be part of it.
We call it the Avida family because of the culture we like to breed – lots of people want to join us, because of the culture but also because of the very experienced people we have in place.
Colombia as a country has that pizazz about it, but it also takes medical cannabis very seriously – Avida Global is all about quality, and where we are means we can produce something that’s of the highest quality but also very cost-effective.
If we were growing in Canada or Europe, we’d have to reinforce what we’re doing with heating, lighting, air conditioning – here, all we do is take advantage of the natural environment.
It’s a product of the area we’re in and the people who live there.
The future of the industry
I suspect there will be lots of losers, those who have come into the industry in the most opportunistic way, without realising the expense of having to set up something that is very serious.
So I think the industry will consolidate and quality players will survive; the novel foods classification is fundamentally good news in terms of quality standards.
I also think the growth will happen a lot slower than some analysts predict; we’ve already seen that the pace of change is very slow.
Pharma companies are gradually taking medical cannabis more seriously, but the whole sea change is much more the connection between Eastern and Western medicine.
Western medicine is always about the single molecule, it’s very focused – here’s a pill, take it – whereas cannabis, at its most effective, is the whole plant, the full spectrum, with all the cannabinoids working together in various ratios.
That’s what the serious medical industry is trying to get their heads around; it’s much more naturopathic, and not as accurate in terms of how to prescribe it.
As more trials are run, we learn more and more about the endocannabinoid system which, up to 10 years ago, wasn’t even talked about in medical school.
It’s all about growing up after the false dawn of what happened in Canada, which was like the dot com bubble, in terms of how it was the next big thing and then it all crashed down.
That’s not to say it wasn’t right, it was just too early and expectations were too high.
A head for business
To succeed in business – any business – you need three things.
Firstly, a clear, focused strategy for the short, medium and long term.
Secondly, you need belief in that strategy, but you also need to be able and willing to take on board a lot of advice.
Lastly, you need tenacity – it’s not going to be a quick journey and there will be pitfalls along the way, so you just have to believe in yourself.
Legislation will change and events will overtake your plans; this industry is like snakes and ladders, so you just have to enjoy the game.