Meet Florida’s new director of cannabis: Holly Bell

Bell says her main goal is to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to Florida.
Published March 5, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- It’s been three weeks since the state’s first cannabis czar took office, and she’s been doing some thinking about ways she can use hemp to improve the state of Florida.

Every morning as she makes her way toward the Capitol for another day on her new job as the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ director of cannabis, Holly Bell gets excited thinking about the possibilities.

“It may be corny, but I do!” Bell said, laughing. To her right, a computer monitor showed a search result for ways hemp can be used for plastic.

For the past several years, the Nashville consultant and banker has been boosting young entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry. Bell says her main goal is to bring that entrepreneurial spirit to Florida.

“Helping people, making it a better place … the older you get, the more you realize that it’s what it’s all about,” she said.

From marijuana lobbyist to candidate for agriculture commissioner.

Bell grew up on a farm in Warsaw, Indiana, and later graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture economics.

As a child, she rode horses, raised sheep and award-winning cattle with her family. Her weekend job of counting money at the family’s boat dock manufacturing plant sparked her interest in finance and taught her and her three siblings how to work hard.

Her older sister, now an anesthesiologist in upstate New York said Bell has always been passionate about agriculture, but that the new job is a path she didn’t see coming.

“I don’t know I would have predicted it, but she’s well suited for it,” Melany Rookstool-Welch said. “Life takes you down paths you can’t predict.”

Upon graduating from Purdue in 1985, Bell started working in finance and moved around the world with her former husband, who was a helicopter pilot in the Army. When they came back to the United States they moved to Nashville for her daughter, who was born with mild cerebral palsy, to be treated at Vanderbilt University’s hospital.

Her financial planning practice was bought shortly after, and she continued consulting in Nashville for various corporate clients, helping them carry out their visions for new lines of business.

Some of this work was for companies in the entertainment business, which she compared to some aspects of the cannabis industry. She said both industries are “high-risk” with fewer tangible assets, so they require more care when it comes to lending money or opening accounts.

“It’s intellectual property. In the cannabis space, it’s very similar,” she said. “You’ve got people creating strains and developing concepts … we deal with a lot of patents, too.”

Although Bell was giving lots of advice to cannabis businesses, she did it in secret and for free. Because she worked at a bank at the time, it wasn’t ethical to charge them, and the industry carried too much of a stigma to make it public.

“They’re a very tight-knit group and one would talk to another and say, ‘Call Holly, quietly she’ll help you and give you the 411 on what to do,’ ” she said.

In 2015 she took an early retirement and set out to consult in the cannabis industry full-time after a negative run-in with her boss.

“Even during that time I was very careful not to put it on my web page, my LinkedIn profile, because I did get negative feedback,” she added. “You had to be very careful.”

In December 2017, she finally went public with her career when she toured a nursery and saw what growers were risking with their careers. At the nursery, she met young parents who spread their financial savings around and kept large amounts of cash in case “something happened to them” and their bank accounts were shut down. They said they worried about not having money on hand for necessities like diapers and baby formula

Josh Camp, a co-founder of a Nashville-based cannabidiol manufacturer, said Bell was instrumental in helping him secure meetings with local banks and teaching board members how to understand the regulatory issues around hemp.

“Without her, we wouldn’t be nearly as far along as a company,” said Camp, who now employs more than 50 people and sells the product in 300 stores nationwide. “Since then she has connected me to many great people and become a great friend without ever so much as suggested we do anything for her in return.”

While Bell continued to expand her reach in the cannabis community, she got to know Fried well. Once she heard she was running, she called the campaign and asked how she could help. She later contributed $500 to Fried’s campaign in October.

“I’ve met a handful of people in my life who I can honestly say ‘I’ll follow you wherever you go. I’m behind you.’ She’s one,” Bell said. “I believe you, you see a vision.”

And she did follow Fried all the way to Tallahassee, where she’s spending her days meeting with staff, doing research and working with legislators on moving a new state hemp program forward.

“I really came with no agenda other than to implement a vision that the commissioner had and help the people of Florida,” she said. “Although I’m not a lifelong resident, we really are happy to live here now.”

Fried, who interviewed about two dozen people for the job, said Bell was the best person to “get it right” when implementing a state hemp program. There are four bills filed across both chambers that would authorize the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer the program

“Holly’s knowledge and understanding of managing programs and startups and experience bringing people together to implement a vision makes her a bold and bright choice to build a future of cannabis here in the state of Florida,” Fried said.

Bell’s aging father-in-law also lives in Florida, which she said was part of her decision to move south.

JR Rogers, her husband Todd’s father, said his daughter-in-law is a “listener” and not a “yapper.”

“She doesn’t try to control the discussion, but she’ll stop back and listen,” said Rogers, who now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach.

“It’s a learning process politically, and I’ve talked to her about it,” said Rogers, who once served in the West Virginia state senate. “It’s a new life. Even though I’ve been out of politics for years, you just have to watch what you’re saying.”

In addition to working with her own department, she’ll be working with other agencies and lawmakers when it comes to marijuana banking. There are already bills in both chambers that aim to expand the definition of “financial institution” to include medical marijuana charter banks or credit unions.

And Ron Rubin, the state’s new commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, said he hopes to be a “yes” man when it comes to banking with legitimate marijuana companies.

During his interview in front of the Cabinet, he said denying banking to marijuana companies is “a backhanded, dirty way of going after businesses you don’t like” and “pushing them to cash, which drives crime.”

After the Cabinet meeting, Fried said she sees Bell being a useful resource for Rubin as he starts his position and works through his first legislative session.

“She’s going to be able to quickly get in and talk to the new OFR director and show all the different moving parts on how we can make this work,” she said.

When Fried first picked Bell for job, some Floridians who work in the cannabis industry expressed their disappointment. They said because she wasn’t native to the state, she wasn’t as qualified for the role as others who applied.

‘A super slap in the face.’ Longtime advocates ridicule out-of-state pot czar pick.

Bell said that since her job was announced, she’s been trying to connect with Florida’s cannabis community, which described as “tight-knit” and “vocal.”

“To change something like they have, as advocates on the forefront of something, as innovators … you have to be that,” she said. “It’s different than interacting with other communities that I’ve dealt with, but I find it interesting and fun.”

She added that while meeting with advocates and trying to understand their point of view, she’s made it clear that she’s ready to sit down and hear them out.

“Are we all going to get what we want every time? No,” Bell said. “But can we come to compromise? Absolutely.”