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A Q&A with Rob Sechrist, President of Pelorus Equity Group and Manager of the Pelorus Fund

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry in the United States represents about a $50 billion asset class making it one of the largest new asset classes in the country. Commercial real estate lending is a key enabler for companies seeking to expand and scale. Pelorus Equity Group is one of the largest commercial lenders in cannabis with over $170 million deployed since its first cannabis transaction in 2016.

Since 1991, Pelorus principals have participated in more than $1 billion of real estate investment transactions using both debt and equity solutions. Pelorus offers a range of transactional solutions addressing the diverse needs of cannabis related business operators. While most cannabis private equity lenders focus on real estate acquisition and refinancing, Pelorus has leveraged its experience in more than 5,000 transactions of varying size and complexity to offer value-add loans, a rarity in the industry.

We spoke with Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund. Rob joined Pelorus in 2010 after several years in the California real estate market. In 2018, Pelorus launched the Pelorus Fund where Rob is currently the manager. The Fund converted to an REIT in 2020.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Rob Sechrist: Pelorus is a value-add bridge lender. We’ve been lending for a long time, originally in the non-cannabis space. We’ve done 5000 transactions for over a billion dollars – more than a lot of banks.

In 2014, our local congressman Dana Rohrabacher passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that defunded the Department of Justice from prosecuting any cannabis related business in a medically licensed state. We were a supporter of that legislation and once that passed, we took a serious look at utilizing our expertise in being a value-add lender and applying it to the largest asset class of real estate that is newly coming about today. That cannabis related asset class is about $50 billion.

Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund

We decided that we had the expertise to move into this space and to build these facilities out for our borrowers so that the cannabis use tenants would have a fully stabilized facility and make it operate. After the amendment passed in 2014, by 2016 we had originated our first transaction. Since that time, we’ve originated 51 transactions in the cannabis space for over $177 million so far. It wasn’t that big of a pivot when you’re just providing the value-add loan.

“Value-add” in the loan business means that a portion of the loan amount, let’s just say is a million dollars, maybe 250,000 of that, is a pre-approved budget to go back into the property. In cannabis property those are typically tenant improvements and/or equipment to fully stabilize that tenant. So, we’re the first fully dedicated lender in the nation exclusively to cannabis and we’ve done more transactions than anybody else in the nation.

Green: What are some challenges of cannabis lending compared to traditional lending?

Sechrist: The number one challenge in cannabis is that you must disclose to your investors that you’re originating the loans to cannabis use tenants. Many people have concerns that lending indirectly might be federally illegal. If you did not disclose that to your investors when you form that capital stack to fund these transactions, you’re going to run into issues. So, you would need to create a vehicle where you disclose to your investors that you’re intending to lend into cannabis and it’s still federally illegal. Doing one-off stand-alone transactions deal by deal is not sustainable if you’re going to be a large lender.

There are other challenges. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, it gives insurers and other third parties the ability to deny a claim, or certain lender protections. Some examples include errors and omissions insurance, title insurance, property insurance, etc. and all of them say in those policies that if you’re doing something federally illegal, then the policy is null and void. So, you must think your way through very carefully all the things that could potentially be an issue. You also have to disclose to those third parties and find a way to get them to acknowledge it to make sure you have the coverage if you ever have to make a claim. That’s a very difficult process.

Green: How has the investor profile in cannabis lending changed over time?

Sechrist: Our fund was structured to allow for institutional capital from the inception. We were able to do that because we are completely non-plant touching. Our fund only lends to the owners of commercial real estate. We do not lend to any cannabis licensed operator directly whatsoever. Our borrowers – the owners of the properties – would then have a lease agreement with the cannabis use tenant. Even if it’s an owner-operator, those are separate entities. That’s how we’ve distinguished ourselves.

Pelorus Equity Group, Inc. Logo

Regarding the investor profile, the first $100 million plus we raised was primarily from retail investors who were individuals writing checks up to a million dollars. Once we had three years of audited track record and our fund was $100 million, we then pivoted over to family offices and institutional investors and pension funds. We’re now working primarily with those types of investors.

The reason that we started with retail investors is that it’s very easy for me to explain our model to a single decision maker and answer their questions. Once I move into family offices or institutional investors, the opportunity goes to a credit committee where I’m relying on some other party to educate the investor about our investment. It’s enormously challenging at that point if it’s not me doing the talking. I know the answers, but I’m having to rely on somebody else to answer questions. We’ve tried to educate everybody we speak with and craft our documentation in such a way that even when it’s not myself answering the questions directly, people can understand how we thread the needle through some of the legal hurdles.

Green: How do you prioritize deal flow, and what are the qualities of a successful loan applicant?

Sechrist: We typically maintain a pipeline of around $150 million in transactions at any one time.

Applicants must have real estate. We’re not doing business loans or operator loans directly to tenants or business operations. So, that’s the starting point. We want a real estate piece of collateral where we feel more than comfortable with the loan-to-value and ratios and the loan to cost and other figures, that we feel that this transaction is going to be a success for our borrower and ultimately the tenant.

Next, we will only work with very experienced operators who have a proven track record where this is not their first transaction. Ideally, we are working someone who is looking to expand their operations and who is ready to either move from being a tenant of their previous facility and buying their next facility.

The next aspect that we’re looking for is the strength of the borrower’s guarantor. They must be able to qualify to support that transaction. Many of our transactions are millions or 10s of millions of dollars. You must have a sponsor that can support that size of a transaction.

Green: What sort of value-adds should a cannabis property owner look for in their lender?

Sechrist: Most people that are looking for loans are only familiar with getting loans for themselves on their owner-occupied house. Most loans have points, they have a rate and a term, loan-to-value and things like that.

“We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments.”When you move into construction loans or value-add lending, there are other elements that are more important than the pricing of the loan. The number one thing is to get that property fully stabilized and built as quickly as possible. Cannabis tenants are generating 10 to 15 times more revenue per month than non-cannabis tenants.

If you go to a bank and borrow money it may be a third of what it costs to borrow from us, but they process draws maybe once a month. So, if you’re having to advance the money for improvements of the property, and then the bank reimburses once a month, at a certain point you’re not going to be able to advance any more money until you get reimbursed. The project comes to a stop. So, in your mind, you might have saved an enormous amount on the pricing of the rate, but it’s costing you dearly in revenue and opportunity costs. We typically process 50 to 100 draws post-closing on transactions, and we get that facility built and the money reimbursed to all the contractors on a multiple-times-a-week basis. It’s happening in real flow all the time.

A typical problem for a tenant is that the tenant improvements are orders of magnitude higher than a non-cannabis tenant – anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot. In addition, the equipment is often enormously expensive as well. It’s tough to put money into a buildout for a building that you may not own. Our vision at Pelorus was, let’s not force these tenants – the cannabis operators – to raise equity at the worst possible time when they’re not generating revenue through the facility. Let’s shift that capital balance for those tenant improvements and equipment from the from the tenant to the owner of the building, which is where it’s secured and adds value to that building anyway. Our vision was to shift that money from the balance sheet of the tenant over to the owner of the real estate so the tenant didn’t have to sell equity to come up with that money. Then the tenant is paying for the improvements in the lease rate and the borrower is paying for improvements in the note rate. And so we’ve shifted tenant improvements from being an equity component to now it’s just priced in the debt. This way you know what the terms are and you know what your total exposure is there.

We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments. Most of our peers in the space don’t look at it that way. They just do the acquisition or the refinance. They don’t do anything for the tenant improvements. They don’t do anything for the equipment. The tenant is left out there to either raise that equity or the borrower – the owner of the real estate – is having to come up with that additional capital on their own. We think you’re set up for failure in that circumstance. So, we blend all that into one capital stack. It’s important that the tenants can get all the way up to being able to cash flow and support that facility and be fully stabilized so they can refinance into a lower cost bank or credit union transaction.

Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?

Sechrist: First, I think that it’s important to remind people that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has protected everybody from any prosecution. So, there’s no jeopardy out there that exists. The second thing I like to tell people is there are 695 banks on FinCEN’s website of cannabis Tier 1 depositors, and of those, we’re tracking numerous FDIC insured state banks and credit unions that are lending directly. We’ve been paid off by banks.

So, there’s this massive misconception that there’s no banking at all and that everything is happening by cash. The only cash buildup that happens is at the retail dispensary level because credit cards aren’t allowed for retail sales at the dispensaries. Out of the 2,000 transactions that we’ve either processed or reviewed, not one has ever not had banking set up. So, it is a big misnomer that there’s no depositor relations for Tier 1 banking, which is plant touching.

Tier 2/3 depositors are ancillary, which is what we are at Pelorus. There are 100 private lenders and dozens and dozens of state and federal credit unions or state banks and credit unions, not federal, that are FDIC insured and lending. Those banks are difficult to get loans from because they only want to do urban environments. They want to do fully stabilized companies and they want to use alternative views and the facility has to have seasoning for cash flow. It’s difficult to qualify for them. So, banking and lending exists out there, and most people are not aware of that.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about? This could be either in cannabis or in your personal life.

Sechrist: My two passions are snowboarding and racetrack driving. I just came back from the Mille Miglia race in Italy, and I do a lot of driving on the racetracks. I’m always looking to learn from those experiences.

In the cannabis sector, social equity programs are happening across the nation and cannabis licenses are being issued to operators. We would like to help participate in some system of educating these applicants that win the awards. Lending to an owner of a property who just won a license but has no experience is going to be problematic. Somebody needs to be thinking that out and making sure that these people that win have enough experience and education to set them up for success. Cannabis is one of the most complicated businesses ever, and they’ve got this license as their ticket, but they need to know how to make sure they’re going to be successful.

Green: Great Rob, that concludes the interview.

Sechrist: Thanks Aaron.

A Q&A with Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry saw close to $15.5B in deals across VC, private equity, M&A and IPOs in 2020 according to PitchBook data. Early and growth stage capital has been a key enabler in deal activity as companies seek to innovate and scale, taking advantage of trends towards national legalization and consolidation. Entourage Effect Capital is one of the largest VC firms in cannabis with over $150MM deployed since its inception in 2014. Some of their notable investments include GTI, CANN, Harborside (CNQ: HBOR), Acreage Holdings, Ebbu, TerrAscend and Sunderstorm.

We spoke with Matt Hawkins, co-founder and managing partner at Entourage Effect Capital. Matt started Entourage in 2014 after exiting his previous company. He has 20+ years of private equity experience and serves on the Boards of numerous cannabis companies. Matt’s thought leadership has been on Fox Business in the past and he has also recently featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance, Cheddar and more.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Matt Hawkins: We’ve been making investments in the cannabis industry since 2014. We’ve made 65 investments to date. We have a full team of investment professionals, and we invest up and down the value chain of the industry.

I had been in private equity for 25 years and I kind of just fell into the industry after I’d had an exit. I started lending to warehouse owners in Denver that were looking to refinance their mortgages out of commercial debt into private debt, which would then give them the ability to lease their facilities to growers. I realized there would be a significant opportunity to place capital in the private equity side of the cannabis business. So, I just started raising money for that project and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run and we’ve built a fantastic portfolio. We look forward to continuing to deploy capital up to and through legalization.

Green: Do you consider Entourage Effect Capital a VC fund or private equity firm? How do you talk about yourself?

Hawkins: In the early stages of the industry, we were more purely venture capital because there was hardly any revenue. We’re probably still considered a venture capital firm, by definition, just because of the risk factors. As the industry has matured, the investments we make are going to be larger. The reality is that the checks we write now will go to companies that have a track record of not only 12 months of revenue, but EBITDA as well. We can calculate a multiple on those, and that makes it more like lower/middle-market private equity investing.

Green: What’s your investment mandate?

Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

Hawkins: From here forward our mandate is to build scale in as many verticals as we can ahead of legalization. In the early days, we were focused on giving high net worth individuals and family offices access to the industry using a very diversified approach, meaning we invested up and down the value chain. We’ll continue to do that, but now we’re going to be really laser focused on combining companies and building scale within companies to where they’re going to be more attractive for exit partners upon legalization.

Green: Are there any particular segments of the industry that you focus on whether it’s cultivation, extraction or MSOs?

Hawkins: We tend to focus on everything above cultivation. We feel like cultivation by itself is a commodity, but when vertically integrated, for example with a single-state operator or multi-state operator, that makes it intrinsically more valuable. When you look at the value chain, right after cultivation is where we start to get involved.

Green: Are you also doing investments in tech and e-commerce?

Hawkins: We’ve made some investments in supply chain, management software, ERP solutions, things like that. We’re not really focused on e-commerce with the exception of the only CBD company we are invested in.

Green: How does Entourage’s investment philosophy differ from other VC and private equity firms in cannabis?

Hawkins: We really don’t pay attention to other people’s philosophies. We have co-invested with others in the past and will continue to do so. There’s not a lot of us in the industry, so it’s good that we all work together. Until legalization occurs, or institutional capital comes into play, we’re really the only game in town. So, it behooves us all to have good working relationships.

Green: Across the states, there’s a variety of markets in various stages of development. Do you tend to prefer investing in more sophisticated markets? Say California or Colorado where they’ve been legalized for longer, or are you looking more at new growth opportunities like New York and New Jersey?

Hawkins: Historically, we’ve focused on the most populous states. California is obviously where we’ve placed a lot of bets going forward. We’ll continue to build out our portfolio in California, but we will also exploit the other large population states like New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. All of those are big targets for us. 

Green: Do you think legalization will happen this Congress?

Hawkins: My personal opinion is that it will not happen this year. It could be the latter part of next year or the year after. I think there’s just too much wood to chop. I was encouraged to see the SAFE Banking Act reappear. I think that will hopefully encourage institutional capital to take another look at the game, especially with the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange open up. So that’s a positive.

I think with the election of President Biden and with the Senate runoffs in Georgia going Democrat, the timeline to legalization has sped up, but I don’t think it’s an overnight situation. I certainly don’t think it’ll be easy to start crossing state lines immediately, either.

Green: Can you explain more about your thoughts on interstate commerce?

Hawkins: I think it’s pretty simple. The states don’t want to give up all the tax revenue that they get from their cultivation companies that are in the state. For example, if you allow Mexico and Colombia to start importing product, we can’t compete with that cost structure. States that are neighbors to California, but need to grow indoors which is more expensive, are not going to want to lose their tax revenues either. So, I just think there’s going to be a lot of butting heads at the state level.

The federal government is going to have to outline what the tax implications will be, because at the end of the day the industry is currently taxed as high as it ever will be or should be. Anything North of current tax levels will prohibit businesses from thriving further, effectively meaning not being able to tamp down the illicit market. One of the biggest goals of legalization in my opinion should be reducing the tax burden on the companies and thereby allowing them to be able to compete more directly with the illicit market, which obviously has all the benefits of reduced crime, etc.

Green: Do you foresee 280E changes coming in the future?

Hawkins: For sure. If the federal illegality veil is removed – which means there’ll be some type of rescheduling – cannabis would be removed from the 280E category. I think 280E by definition is about just illegal drugs and manufacturing and selling of that. As long as cannabis isn’t part of that, then it won’t be subject to it.

Green: What have been some of the winners in your portfolio in terms of successful exits?

Hawkins: When the CSC started allowing companies in Canada to own U.S. assets, the whole landscape changed. We were fortunate to be early investors in Acreage and companies that sold to Curaleaf and GTI before they were public. We are big investors in TerrAscend. We were early investors in Ebbu which sold to Canopy Growth. Those were huge wins for us in Fund I. We also have some interesting plays in Fund II that are on the precipice of having similar-type exits.

You read about the big ones, but at the end of the day, the ones that kind of fall under the radar – the private deals – actually have even greater multiples than what we see on some of the public M&A activity.

Green: Governor Cuomo has been hinting recently at being “very close” on a deal for opening up the cannabis market in New York. What do you think are the biggest opportunities in New York right now?

Hawkins: If it can get done, that’s great. I’m just concerned that distractions in the state house right now in New York may get in the way of progress there. But if it doesn’t, and it is able to come to fruition, then there isn’t a sector that doesn’t have a chance to thrive and thrive extremely well in the state of New York.

Green: Looking at other markets, Curaleaf recently announced a big investment in Europe. How do you look at Europe in general as an investment opportunity?

Hawkins: We have a pretty interesting play in Europe right now through a company called Relief Europe. It’s poised to be one of the first entrants to Germany. We think it could be a big win for us. But let’s face it, Europe is still a little behind, in fact, a lot behind the United States in terms of where they are as an industry. Most of the capital that we’re going to be deploying is going to be done domestically in advance of legalization.

Green: What industry trends are you seeing in the year ahead?“We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis.”

Hawkins: Well, I think you’ll see a lot of consolidation and a lot of ramping up in advance of legalization. I think that’s going to apply in all sectors. I just don’t see a scenario wherein mom and pops or smaller players are going to be successful exit partners with some of the new capital that’s coming in. They’re going to have to get to a point where they’re either selling to somebody bigger than them right now or joining forces with companies around the same size as them and creating mass. That’s the only way you’re going to compete with companies coming in with billions of dollars to deploy.

Green: How do you see this shaking out?

Hawkins: That’s where you start to look into the crystal ball. It’s really difficult to say because I think until we get to where we truly have a national footprint of brands, which would require crossing state lines, it’s going be really difficult to tell where things go. I do know that liquor, tobacco, beer, the distribution companies, they all are standing in line. Big Pharma, big CPG, nutraceuticals, they all want access to this, too.

In some form or fashion, these bigger players will dictate how they want to go about attacking the market on their own. So, that part remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait and see where this goes and how quickly it goes there.

Green: Are you looking at other geographies to deploy capital such as APAC or Latin America regions?

Hawkins: Not at this point. It’s not a focus at all. What recently transpired here in the elections just really makes us want to focus here and generate positive returns for investors.

Green: As cannabis goes more and more mainstream, federal legalization is maybe more likely. How do you think the institutional investor scene is evolving around that? And is it a good thing to bring in new capital to the cannabis market?

Hawkins: I don’t see a downside to it. Some people are saying that it could damage the collegial and cottage-like nature of the industry. At the end of the day, if you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that are waiting to pour into companies listed on the CSC and up-listing to the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange, that’s only going to increase their market caps and give them more cash to acquire other companies. The trickle-down effect of that will be so great to the industry that I just don’t know how you can look the other way and say we don’t want it. 

Green: Last question: What’s got your attention these days? What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about?

Hawkins: We’re constantly learning about just where this industry is headed. We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis. We all saw the correlation between cannabis and alcohol prohibition. The reality is that the industry is mature enough now where you can see similarities to industries that have gone from infancy to their adolescent years. That’s kind of where we are now and so we spend a lot of time studying industries that have been down this path before and see what lessons we can apply here.

Green: Okay, great. So that concludes the interview!

Hawkins: Thanks, Aaron.

Cannabis Revival and Year of the SPAC’s: What’s To Be Expected the Rest of 2021?

By Michael Sassano
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The unusual nature of 2020 gave rise to a reciprocally roller-coaster-like cannabis market. Cannabis was cemented officially as an essential industry with the rise of COVID-19, and November elections resulted in even more United States markets welcoming medical and adult-use sales.

The stagnant cannabis stock market of 2019 became a thing of the past by the end of 2020. Throughout the course of last year, bag holders anxiously watched cannabis options creep back up. Now, nearly two years since market decline in 2019, the cannabis stock market is exploding with blank checks and buyout fever. Much of this expectant purchasing is due to Canadian companies considering U.S. market entrance. Combined with the recent surge in the use of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) to invest, this has led to an increase in asset prices.

A SPAC is defined as “a company with no commercial operations that is formed strictly to raise capital through an initial public offering (IPO) for the purpose of acquiring an existing company.” Though they have existed for decades, SPACs have become popular on Wall Street the last few years because they are a way for a company to go public without the associated headaches of preparing for a traditional IPO.

In a SPAC, investors interested in a specific industry pool their money together without knowledge of the company they’re starting. The SPAC then goes public as a shell company and begins acquiring other companies in the associated industry. Selling to a SPAC is usually an attractive option for owners of smaller companies built from private equity funds.

The U.S.-Canadian market questions that this rising practice asks are: Can Canadian companies enter a bigger market and be more successful? Is it advisable for U.S. companies to sell their assets to Canadian corporations whose records may be marred by a history of losses and a lack of proper corporate governance? Regardless — if both SPAC’s and Canadian bailout money is here, what comes next?

What is Driving this Bull Market?

Underpinning these movements are record cannabis sales internationally, making last year’s $15 billion dollars’ worth of sales in the U.S. look small in comparison. New markets have opened up in various states and countries throughout 2020, and that trend is only expected to continue. New demographics are opening up, especially among older age groups. This makes sense, as most cannabis sales — even in a recreational setting — are people treating something that ails them like insomnia or aches and pains.

Cannabis is set to take off, and we are entering only the second phase of its market expansion. The world is becoming competitive. Well-run companies that are profitable in key markets are prime targets for bigger, growing companies. At the same time, the world of SPACs will continue to drive valuations. Irrespective of buying assets, growing infrastructure is and will continue to be greatly needed.

The Elusive Profitability Factor

When Canada blew up, one of the biggest changes was companies began focusing the year on cost cutting and — most importantly — profitability. Profitability became the buzzword. But bigger companies are on the search for already-profitable enterprises, not just those that have the potential to be. However, profitability is currently still unobtainable in Canada. Reasonable forecasters should expect this year will show a few companies getting bailed out while many others will be forced to either merge for survival or declare bankruptcy.

An ideal company’s finances should highlight not only revenue growth, but also profitability. Attention should be focused on how well businesses are run, and not on how much money they have the potential to raise or spend. Over the years, there have been many prospective companies that spent hundreds of millions only to barely operate, and are now shells in litigation. Throwing money at any deal should have been a lesson learned in the past, but SPACs are tempting because they are trendily associated with new, interesting management styles and charismatic businesspeople.

Companies should be able to present perfect and clear financials along with maintenance logs for all equipment. In today’s day and age, books must be stellar and clean. As money pours into SPACs, asset valuations for all qualities of companies will rise. The focus instead becomes about asset plays, which will cause assets to continue rising as money is poured into SPACs.

Once upon a time, if number counters presented a negative review or had to dig too much, executives would turn a cold shoulder on investment. But in the age of SPACs, these standards of evaluation will be greatly undervalued. Aging equipment and reportability of every piece of equipment may or may not be properly serviced and recorded in a fast-moving market. Costs of repair or replacing equipment that isn’t properly maintained may be a problem of the past. Because when money comes fast, none care for the gritty details.

Issues for SPACs

Shortage of talent and training has become a big concern already in the era of SPACs. How many quality assets are out there? Big operators in the U.S. are content and don’t see Canada as an enticing market to enter. So, asset buys are likely to primarily be in the U.S. Large companies like Aphria may buy out some of the major American players, but most Canadian companies will use new funding rounds to pay down debts. Accordingly, they will then be forced to piece together smaller operators as a strategy.

A cannabis company’s personnel and office culture are very important when looking to integrate into a larger corporate culture. Remember, it’s not just the brick and mortar that is being invested into, it is also the people that run a facility. Maintaining employee retention when a deal occurs is always critical. Your personnel should be highly trained and professional if you want to exit. Easy to plug-in corporate structures make all the difference in immediately gaining from the sale or having to retool the shed and bring in all new people.

The rise of the SPAC-era and Canadian entry into the U.S. market will cause asset increases, but it is only the second chapter in the market expansion of cannabis. Proper buys will nail profitability, impeccable books, proper maintenance records and will have created an efficient corporate structure with talented personnel. The rest will be overpriced land buys that will require massive infrastructure spending. The basics of a well-run organization don’t change. The cannabis market is going to ROAR, but don’t worry if the SPACs pass you by- they are buying at the start of cannabis only.

Q&A with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments

By Aaron Green
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Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently secured a commitment from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.

We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.

Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?

Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.

Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?

Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.

My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.

Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments

Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?

Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.

So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.

Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?

Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.  

What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.

Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them. 

Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business. 

Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.

The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.

Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?

Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.  

Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.

Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.

Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?

Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.

Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details? 

Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.

This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis. 

Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada. 

Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?

Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.

Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process? 

Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.

Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.

Aaron: So, what’s next for C21? 

Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.

“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.

I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.

One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.   

Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.

Cannabis M&A in the Post-COVID Era

By Jose Sariego
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After a slow start following a disappointing 2019, M&A in the cannabis space closed 2020 with a bang, with more than $600 million in deals announced immediately following the November elections. Prospects for the New Year are expected to continue the explosive year-end trend with a backlog of nearly $2 billion in deals heading into 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted sales of cannabis products, and election results opening up five new states to legal cannabis use and possible federal regulatory reform are further boosting prospects. Analysts now predict the U.S. cannabis market is poised to double by 2025.

Growth is expected to be led by multi-state operators who have achieved scale, cleaned up their balance sheets and stockpiled dry powder for roll-up acquisitions. Cannabis companies raised nearly $134 million in the two weeks before Election Day, a 185% increase over the same period last year. Most of the money flowed to multistate operators. In addition, the biggest stocks by market capitalization saw a roughly 20% bump ahead of the election and now are trading at record volumes, providing plenty of stock currency for further acquisitions.

Among the headline acquisitions last year:

  • Curaleaf continued its multi-state expansion with two of its largest acquisitions – the all-stock purchases of its affiliated cannabis oil company Select and of Grassroot, another MSO player. Curaleaf is now the largest cannabis company in the world based on annualized revenues, with annualized sales of $1 billion and operations in 23 states and 96 open dispensaries. Curaleaf also raised $215 million privately last year end for further expansion.
  • Close behind, Aphria and Tilray announced in December that they will merge, creating what they say will be the largest cannabis company in the world with an equity value of roughly $3.8 billion. The combined entity will have facilities and offices in the U.S., Canada, Portugal and Germany. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.
  • Also in December, Illinois-based Verano Holdings LLC unveiled plans to go public at a $2.8 billion valuation through a reverse takeover of a Canadian shell company. That deal followed the announcement that Verano will merge with Florida-based AltMed.
  • In addition, publicly traded New York cannabis firm Columbia Care signed a definitive agreement last month to acquire Green Leaf Medical, a privately held Maryland-based cannabis manufacturer and retailer, for $45 million in cash and $195 million in stock. The acquisition is expected to close this summer. Including Green Leaf’s inventory, the Columbia Care will operate 107 facilities, including 80 dispensaries and 27 cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Columbia Care also took advantage of cannabis fever last year by raising $100 million privately.
  • Also in December, Ayr Strategies announced it would acquire Liberty Health Sciences, one of the largest cannabis companies in Florida, for $290 million in stock, as well Garden State Dispensary, a New Jersey marijuana company for $41 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $30 million in the form of a note. This follows Ayr’s $81 million acquisition of an Arizona medical marijuana operator in November. Voters approved marijuana use in Arizona and New Jersey in November.  Ayr has completed a string of acquisitions in Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and, upon the closing of December’s deals, New Jersey and Florida.

Not all cannabis companies will rely on acquisitions, however. Trulieve, as an example, has focused its efforts on Florida and organic growth. It remains to be seen whether a multi-state approach fueled by acquisitions or a single-state organic growth model will prove the more lasting. Growth and profitability in the short term likely will continue to be hampered by limits on economies of scale due to federal restrictions and differing state laws.

In light of the maturing industry and the 2019 bust, the valuation model for acquisitions in the cannabis space is evolving from one based on sales, typically associated with emerging growth industries, to a more mature industry model based on profits or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). Most cannabis MSOs have stabilized and generate positive EBITDA, which justifies the evolution away from a sales-driven model.

From a legal standpoint, the same limitations that have vexed the cannabis industry for years will continue to challenge deal makers until there is greater clarity on the federal front. Institutional investor reluctance, financial industry constraints, haphazard state regulation and the unavailability of federal forums such as national copyright and trademark registration will continue to be issues for acquirers and their lawyers in the space.

Acquisition agreements will continue to have to address the federal Damocles’ sword should expected relaxation of federal enforcement under the Biden administration and further legislative relief does not materialize as expected. Although the U.S. House in December passed the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act” (MORE) to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Senate did not take up the bill in 2020 and it will have to be re-introduced in 2021. Notably, the MORE Act does not affect existing federal regulation of cannabis, such as the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, under which the FDA has limited the use of CBD in certain products despite hemp being removed from the Controlled Substances Act in 2018.

The cannabis M&A market is moving into a more mature phase, as MSOs will be choosier in their approach rather than continuing the land-grab mentality of years past. Due to improved financial strength, 2021 should see these MSOs continuing to expand their footprints either within existing states or new ones. Although uncertainties abound, further consolidation and expansion through add-on acquisitions is likely to continue apace in 2021, providing plenty of opportunities for deal makers and their lawyers.

The Hopes of Illinois Social Equity Applicants

By Taneeshia Thomas
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It is almost impossible to turn on the tv and not find a show or news conference or even live footage of an ongoing protest over “Black Lives Matter” or “Economic Equality.” The same situation exists with social media platforms, radio broadcast, etc. All sharing the common theme of social equity. While we all seek a solution, the state of Illinois is doing their part by awarding the coveted adult use cannabis business licenses for craft growing, infusion, transportation and dispensaries to social equity applicants by using a scoring system that favors the social equity applicant. We believe in this vision at TGC Group and our dream is to pay it forward.

Taneeshia Thomas and her husband, Christopher Lacy, who did 3.5 years in prison for growing cannabis in 2009.

We see the world, especially for minorities living in poverty, quite differently because of where we come from. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement to save the lives of all people and have human life viewed equally no matter the race of an individual. Economic equality is a totally different fight. Our communities that are impoverished need cash infusions. There needs to be financial infrastructure that recirculates the dollars from the poor communities and that comes from having business owners in the affected community to put their profits back into their community. There needs to be a system of lending that is not based on credit scores and criminal background checks because most people at the bottom will never qualify. An example would be my husband, Christopher Lacy: he went to prison for 3.5 years for growing cannabis back in 2009. He is not a violent man; he never even had a fight in prison. He spent much of his time in prison teaching inmates how to read, write and most importantly, he tried to teach them economics. He is educated about cannabis because he has been intimately involved with this plant and has been growing it for just about 20 years. Yet when he tried to apply for jobs in Illinois for growing cannabis, his invisible barrier starts with the resume. Just think about it, my husband, knows more about cannabis than most people in the industry today and could manage a facility with ease. No one could see his worth because of his background and work experience? This is the same situation with so many others in our poor communities. We know for a fact that there is hidden talent in the impoverished communities and prison system, and we intend to find it and empower these individuals to rebuild what was destroyed by the war on drugs. I speak for all the ghettos when I say this: give us access to the capital and we will get the rest done on our own. Conventional banks have their hands tied with this approach because they are regulated, but private funds have more flexibility. The excess capital needed to rebuild will not come from jobs, it only comes from ownership. Luckily, J.B. Pritzker and Toi Hutchinson are aware of this and hence created the social equity fund to help the social equity applicants fund their projects if and when they are awarded a license. We must find a way to give to the bottom so that the dollars can trickle up. Trickledown economics is kind of like that movie “Platform” on Netflix. There are never enough resources to get to the bottom because the people sending the resources down have no idea how to get them to the bottom floors of society. Trickle up economics can start at the very bottom rungs of society and still will reach to this highest level of the economic system because its built in such a way that it will inevitably get there.

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Park Forest), now The Illinois Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer

These new licenses, literally pathways to financial freedom if operated correctly and efficiently, are revenue machines capable of changing our community. This change does not come from providing jobs (although jobs do help and will be available), but by providing capital to rebuild. These funds can provide scholarships, business loans, even small infrastructure projects can get accomplished via the tax revenue generated by the local governments. We have already made a written commitment to give a portion of net margins to the village. Capital in the right hands can make dreams come true. In theory, poverty can be solved. Poverty is not a prerequisite to the American way of life. That is why we were so proud to get zoning approval by our village. They see what we see. We can change neighborhoods like Beacon Hill. The dollars must recirculate in the community. Wherever you see high poverty rates you see high crime rates. This is not a coincidence. If you can lower the poverty rate you can lower the crime rates. This raises the quality of life for everyone. We see the state is on board, the county is on board, the Village of Park Forest is on board and the citizens of the community are on board. Now all we need is the license and capital to get the resurrection started.

Unlike other applicants, we were only capable of applying for one license for a craft grow facility. Some may see this as a disadvantage because only 40 licenses will be issued for this purpose. I wish we could have applied for more to increase our odds, but resources were scarce and applying was not cheap. We decided to stick with the efficient market theory and put all our eggs in the one basket that we know we can carry and be successful with. Without the help of Justice Grown, we would’ve never completed the application so shout out to them and anyone else that helped “true” social equity applicants apply.

The wheels are in motion so all we can do is wait to see who wins. I would hate to be on the team who must decide who wins these licenses. Everyone knows large corporations found ways to apply as social equity applicants because they only needed a certain number of “social equity” employees to qualify. But if you go ask the employees, not the owners, if they have been cured of their financial burdens and see if $15 has raised their quality of life to a middle-class level. The answer is emphatically NO. You cannot give out band-aids for heart attacks. If these large corporations are awarded the licenses, it will perpetuate the cycle of poverty. We do not personally have anything against the big companies. Like Toi Hutchinson said regarding the first round of dispensary and cultivation licenses: we needed the big company dollars to fund the next round of licenses. Well, the next round is here. Let’s do right by the communities that were truly affected by the war on drugs and on a more personal level and my reason for applying: let’s do right by my husband because he lost 3.5 years of his life and was excluded from participating with his family for doing what is now legal.

Buyer Beware For Distressed Cannabis Assets

By Joanne Molinaro, Geoffrey S. Goodman, Ronald Eppen
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The legalized cannabis industry remains a budding market in the United States. As the legislative dominoes started to cascade from state-to-state across the country, entrants of all categories—operators, investors, lenders, and retailers—were willing to stand in line for their tickets.  However, signs of fatigue, caused largely by the continuing murkiness of regulatory guidance and investors’ waning appetite for reading the legislative crystal ball, were already surfacing towards the end of 2018 and continued its slide downward into 2019. From March 2019, market capitalization for the 33 biggest cannabis stocks was down 45% by the end of 2019, falling from $54 billion to $30 billion and projected revenues dropped a whopping 17% as well.

Has COVID Made Things Worse?

Against this backdrop, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), cannabis seemed to be somewhat insulated from unprecedented disruptions to supply chains and artificial nose dives in demand. Many operators noted a sharp uptick in sales as states implemented shelter-in-place orders. Ironically, the supply chain hurdles created by the lack of federal legalization rendered operators—even multistate operators (MSOs)—uniquely equipped to handle the supply chain woes that others were struggling to contain. Meanwhile, as more and more states slapped the essential label onto both medical and adult use cannabis, operators were permitted to run business as usual (under the circumstances) and legalized cannabis started to look a little more “normal” in the most abnormal of times.

Thus, for a moment, cannabis looked like it might be a counter indicator (or recession-resilient)—while others were going down, cannabis was going up. But, after this brief surge, sales settled down and states began reporting decreases from this time last year and the outlook for the cannabis industry remains unclear.

Is This An Opportunity?

Declining demand, coupled with the issues described above, spells cash-flow problems for cannabis companies – many of which are still relative “infants” compared to their consumer goods counterparts and thus may have yet to create a “rainy day fund.” However, liquidity issues can create opportunities for those who still have cash to inject. In the last year, 13 special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have listed on exchanges with an eye towards “cheap cannabis assets.”Cheap cannabis assets (or distressed cannabis assets) can offer a lowered barrier to entry into what many still believe to be a bull market. However, investors should proceed with caution. While the assets themselves may bear bargain basement price tags as the world grapples with the current recession, the cost of entry is more onerous than many realize. It is thus critical for potential investors to do their pre-due diligence on the who, what, when, where and how of acquiring distressed cannabis assets.

Where Do Distressed Cannabis Companies Go?

Ordinarily, distressed companies requiring capital restructuring look towards the US Bankruptcy Code. Deploying the broad injunctive relief afforded by the automatic stay as both a sword and shield, ailing companies can focus on lining up debtor-in-possession financing while they prospect feasible long-term exit strategies (through a reorganization, asset sale, or some combination of the two). The other major advantage of a chapter 11 is, of course, the “free and clear” order—the veritable clean slate provided by a federal court to good faith purchasers of the distressed assets that allow buyers to proceed with very few strings attached.

These federal benefits are not available to adult use and medical cannabis companies (hemp companies can file for chapter 11). Indeed, some bankruptcy courts have shut the door on not just the operators themselves, but companies that have even tangential dealings with cannabis companies.  With federal legalization, that will likely change; however in the meantime, distressed cannabis companies must look to pseudo-bankruptcy proceedings that offer some of the benefits that a federal bankruptcy can.

Is A State Receivership A Good Restructuring Vehicle For Distressed Cannabis Companies?

The number one option for many distressed cannabis companies will be state receivership. Much like a chapter 11 bankruptcy, the receivership provides for a stay against actions against the company’s assets, i.e., the breathing space it needs to hatch a plan for rehabilitation or exit the game as painlessly as possible. The receiver will be empowered to run the business while ironing out its operational/cash issues or conduct an orderly sale of the assets, usually through an auction process, during which the secured lender will be afforded the right to credit bid. The costs associated with that sale may be charged to the sale proceeds. Thus, in many ways, the state receivership acts like a federal bankruptcy.

How Is A State Receivership Different From A Federal Bankruptcy?

There are two main differences that investors should be aware of between a federal bankruptcy and a state receivership.

As with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.First, the court appointed receiver (often handpicked by the company’s primary secured lender) will be calling most of the shots from an operational, transactional, and financial perspective. That receiver may not have the kind of operational know-how of running a cannabis company that a typical debtor-in-possession might, making any major transaction more challenging. Even if the receiver has some background in the cannabis industry, he or she will still have a steep learning curve when it comes to the company’s specific business.

Second, the laws vary from state to state on whether a receiver can sell assets free and clear of any and all liens, claims, and encumbrances without the consent or satisfaction of those claims. Accordingly, buyers of distressed cannabis assets will want to take a close look at potential successor liability risks on a state-by-state basis.

Can Anyone Buy Or Invest In Distressed Cannabis Assets?

While many industries offer pay to play options for investors and lenders, the cannabis industry may not be as welcoming. Many lenders eyeing potentially lucrative refinancing possibilities that include an “equity kicker” (e.g., warrants) should be aware that states and municipalities often require investors aiming to own or control a substantial portion of the company’s business to satisfy most, if not all, of the regulatory requirements for holding the various licenses for operating in the cannabis space. For those interested in MSOs, a deep dive into each applicable state or city’s licensing requirements will be necessary.  Similarly, many states have onerous disclosure requirements for owners or financial interest holders of cannabis companies. Failures to disclose can lead to license suspensions or even forfeitures.

These are just some of the hurdles potential investors and lenders may need to scale. But as with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

2020 Financial Trends for the Cannabis Industry

By Melissa Diaz
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The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.

But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.

Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:

Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher

After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.

Image: Flickr

That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.

Expect More M&A and Consolidation

With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.

New Markets & Regulations

The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.

How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.

Image: Cafecredit, Flickr

Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations. 

Credit Card Payments

While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.

While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.

CannTrust Meltdown Indicative Of Summer Of Scandal To Come

By Marguerite Arnold
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While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.

Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.

A Summary Of The Story So Far

CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.

Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.

What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.

But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.

As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.

A Surprise Or Inevitability?

That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.

The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.

And everyone knows it.

Accounting For Past Mistakes

For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.

That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.

The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?

After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.

Where Are The Proceedings?

This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.

There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.

As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.

By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.

But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.

Branding for Cannabis Companies 101: Part 2

By Jennifer Whetzel
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Editor’s Note: In Part 1, Jennifer Whetzel introduced the concepts of branding, marketing and advertising for cannabis companies. Part 2 takes a closer look at the benefits of branding. Stay tuned for Part 3 coming next month.


The Value of Branding

Think back: do you remember the very first Nike ad you saw? Probably not.

But when you see the swoosh, you immediately think of Nike. When you see the swoosh, you probably even think “Just do it.” A whole sensibility, one that signifies perseverance and athletic excellence, gets conjured up by that swoosh. A lot of people think that’s the power of advertising, but they’re only partially correct.

The fact that you don’t just know the swoosh but have thoughts and feelings that bubble up when you see it is due to branding. Companies like Nike don’t spend millions on branding reflexively. They do it because brand recognition and the feelings that come with it turn potential consumers into buyers. Branding success is necessary, measurable and valuable – especially for brands looking to establish themselves.Strong branding is what will increase the chances that your marketing and advertising will be effective, and it’s why branding must be one of your top priorities.

Branding: The Precursor to Advertising

You might not know specifically what ads work on you. But the ones that do work are driven by a strong brand.

For example, check out this ad campaign run by McDonald’s: Essentially, the fast food giant used fractions of its logo to make a wayfinding system on highway billboards. It’s clever and memorable, but it only works thanks to McDonald’s strong branding. McDonald’s has spent years building that shorthand because they understand that immediate recognition pays off in the literal and figurative sense.

Similarly, you know an Apple or an Under Armour ad when you see one. And you know this because there’s a consistent look and sensibility that these companies have worked to codify – that’s the branding piece. If you immediately recognize who these messages are coming from even before you engage with the ad, you’re more focused on the message rather than trying to suss out which company it’s coming from or what they’re selling.

This is why branding has to be a precursor to advertising. If you create ads before you build your brand, you may get a message out about what you’re offering. But if you do this, you’re talking at your customer rather than building a relationship with them. Strong branding is what will increase the chances that your marketing and advertising will be effective, and it’s why branding must be one of your top priorities.

The Benefits of Branding

Branding is about building a lasting, positive relationship with your customer. When you present a consistent brand personality and identity to your audience, you build trust. Consider how you form any long-term relationship; it’s through repeated positive, consistent encounters that allow you to see the other party for who they are. You trust them because you feel that you understand them and that they understand you.

Strange as it seems, it’s also true of brands. Building that bond with your customers will give you an advantage against brands that aren’t very distinct. With proper branding, a company can build and solidify consumer trust, trust that pays off in the form of increased sales, loyalty and good reviews. These brands aren’t constantly introducing themselves to consumers because over time, the branding itself does the selling and makes it easier to introduce new products down the line. Companies that don’t build that trust will have to fight for recognition, and things only get worse with more competition.

The Dollar Value of Branding

And of course, there are numbers to back this up. Every year, Forbes puts out a list of the world’s most valuable brands, and they use complex math to determine the actual value of this intangible thing called a Brand. Based on their thinking, a branded product should earn an 8% premium over a generic product. You can see some of their findings in the table below for a few categories that are traditionally very well-branded.

Industry Brand Brand Value (Billions)[1]
Technology Apple $205.5
Technology Microsoft $125.3
Consumer Packaged Goods Coca-Cola $59.2
Restaurants McDonald’s $43.8
Apparel NIKE $36.8
Restaurants Starbucks $17.0
Apparel Adidas $11.2
Consumer Packaged Goods Kellogg’s $8.0

These numbers, however, make it difficult to compare how well a company’s branding works for them because the brand’s total value is influenced by the size of the company. After doing a few simple calculations, we compared the Brand Value to the total Enterprise Value of each company to determine what we will call their Brand Contribution, which demonstrates how their branding efforts paid off.

When you compare the percentage of total company value that solely comes from the value of the brand, we can see that Nike significantly outperforms competitor Adidas, McDonald’s has a stronger brand than Starbuck’s, and Apple comes close to doubling the brand performance of Microsoft — none of which is surprising.

What might surprise you is the brand at the top of the list when it comes to contribution versus overall company value. Kellogg’s is one of the smallest companies to make the list in terms of Brand Value, and it has the lowest enterprise value in our list. Yet, Kellogg’s has the highest brand contribution. This makes sense in the high-stakes world of consumer-packaged goods; the competition is fierce, well-funded and global, which means that branding that resonates with customers is extremely important.

Industry Brand Brand Value Enterprise Value[2] Brand Contribution[3]
Consumer Packaged Goods Kellogg’s $8.0 $28.4 28.2%
Apparel NIKE $36.8 $133.4 27.6%
Restaurants McDonald’s $43.8 $187.2 23.4%
Consumer Packaged Goods Coca-Cola $59.2 $254.8 23.2%
Technology Apple $205.5 $950.3 21.6%
Apparel Adidas $11.2 $59.0 19.0%
Restaurants Starbucks $17.0 $109.7 15.5%
Technology Microsoft $125.3 $990.9 12.6%

These companies are all massive and wealthy because they prioritize trust and consistency as part of their long-term plan to sell products. Branding promotes loyalty, but its ability to promote trust can be even more powerful by paying off in the long-term. And in this new legal cannabis market, trust is going to be just as critical as it is for traditional companies. After all, the power of branding isn’t just getting people to know who you are — it’s getting them to believe in you.

  1.  https://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/list/#tab:rank
  2. Enterprise value gathered from ycharts.com on 6/20/2019. Ycharts defines enterprise value as: Enterprise Value (EV) is a valuation metric alternative to traditional market capitalization that reflects the market value of an entire business. Like market cap, EV is a measure of what the market believes a company is worth. Enterprise value captures the cost of an entire business, including debt and equity. It is a sum of claims of all preferred shareholders, debt holders, security holders, common equity holders, and minority shareholders – unlike market cap, which only captures the total value of common equity securities.
  3. Ladyjane’s valuation of the strength of a brand. What percentage of the company’s overall valuation can be attributed to the brand? Brand Contribution = Brand Value / Enterprise Value