Investors looking to gain exposure to the cannabis space have several options given the increase in the number of cannabis producers in the past decade, the recent wave of legalization in the U.S. and a rapidly expanding addressable market. However, one undervalued cannabis stock with enticing growth prospects that remains a top buy today is Columbia Care (OTC: CCHWF). Let’s see why we are bullish on the large-cap multi-state operator right now.
What is Columbia Care?
Columbia Care is one of the largest cannabis producers in the world with 31 manufacturing and cultivation facilities. It has 99 dispensary locations in the U.S. with more than two million square feet of cultivation capacity and over 300 acres of outdoor cultivation capacity.
The company’s rapid expansion over the last few years has allowed Columbia Care to increase sales from $77.45 million in 2019 to $179 million in 2020. Wall Street expects sales to more than triple to $626 million this year and grow by another 55% to $970 million in 2022. In case Columbia Care manages to meet analyst estimates, the company would have grown its revenue at an annual rate of 132% between 2019 and 2022.
While several of Columbia Care’s peers, especially in Canada, are grappling with negative margins, this cannabis company is racing towards profitability. It has already narrowed its operating losses from $81 million in 2019 to $31.5 million in the last 12-months. Analysts expect its bottom-line to improve from a loss per share of $0.48 in 2020 to earnings of $0.27 per share in 2022.
Columbia Care has a strong presence in markets such as Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that provide limited licenses to cannabis producers. This allows Columbia Care to improve customer engagement and ensure repeat purchases of its products.
In the second quarter of 2021, it increased revenue by 232% year over year to $110 million. Its adjusted EBITDA also rose to $16 million, compared to a loss of $4.7 million in the prior-year period.
Now, Columbia Care has shifted focus to larger cannabis markets including New York, Arizona, Columbia and New Jersey. In Q2, its sales in Arizona and Illinois rose by 23% and 15% respectively, on a sequential basis.
The cannabis heavyweight recently completed the acquisition of Medicine Man, a Colorado-based cannabis producer, for $42 million. Columbia Care explained the acquisition will be accretive to its bottom-line and is valued at 4.5x projected EBITDA for 2021.
Columbia Care has improved its gross margins to 42% in Q2, from 36% in the prior-year period. Its operating costs have also fallen from $61 million to $51 million in the last year, making it one of the best cannabis stocks on the market today.
Bottom Line: Why Should You Add Columbia Care to Your Cannabis Portfolio?
Columbia Care expects its total addressable market in licensed U.S. states to reach approximately $31 billion by 2026. In the event that cannabis is legalized at the federal level, this figure will surge significantly higher. Additionally, Columbia Care is well poised to gain traction in the future and leverage existing expertise, as it already has wholesale distribution agreements in 13 operational markets.
Its capital expenditure investments continue to generate returns as the company continues to benefit from economies of scale and higher margins.
On October 14, Canopy Growth announced their plans to acquire Wana Brands, the number one cannabis edibles brand based on market share in North America. The two companies entered into an agreement that gives Canopy the right to acquire 100% of the membership interests of Wana Brands (a call option to acquire 100% of each Wana entity) once a “triggering event,” such as when plant-touching companies begin trading on major US stock exchanges or full federal legalization, occurs.
As part of the agreement, Canopy Growth makes an upfront payment of $297.5 million to Wana Brands. Until the United States moves on cannabis legalization or companies can start trading on U.S. exchanges and Canopy uses the call option to acquire Wana Brands, they don’t get any voting or economic interest in Wana Brands. The two companies are essentially operating completely independently of each other until the US legalizes cannabis.
Nancy Whiteman co-founded Wana Brands in 2010 and since then the company has expanded significantly. Following the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Colorado, their sales skyrocketed. Over the next few years, Whiteman oversaw the company’s expansion into a number of new states. In 2016, they moved into Oregon’s market and quickly grew their brand presence, seemingly overnight. Then they expanded into Nevada, Arizona and Illinois in 2017. After that the company made a major East Coast push, expanding into Maryland, Florida and Massachusetts, with other major northeast markets expected to be added soon. The brand now has products available in twelve US states and nine Canadian provinces, with plans to add four additional states by the end of the year.
Shortly after the announcement, we sat down together over coffee in Las Vegas to discuss Whiteman’s journey to success, her plans for the company’s expansion and what the future might hold for Wana Brands.
Aaron G. Biros: First of all, congratulations on the acquisition. As a co-founder and CEO, it must be amazing to see the success of your company and all you’ve accomplished. How do you feel?
Nancy Whiteman: I feel ecstatic. I am so excited and so proud of what Wana has accomplished. Just all around a great feeling.
Biros: What was it like leading up to this moment? From the inception of the business, did you ever have any doubts you’d make it this far?
Whiteman: A thousand times. Absolutely. Anyone in cannabis that tells you they didn’t have any doubts is probably not being very honest. I had been thinking about partnership for a while. I felt the timing was right because of a variety of reasons, but also the possibility of federal legalization. I wanted to make sure that Wana was really going to be well positioned for future growth. One of the things that I said in our employee meeting – I quoted the old proverb of ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.’ We’ve been going it alone for eleven years and we’ve gone very fast. But I want Wana to continue to be a major player in the industry and to go far. I really felt that this was the time in the industry to strike a partnership.
So that’s a little bit of the thinking behind it. I think when there is federal legalization, there is going to be a host of competitors entering the industry that are going to be unlike anything we’ve faced before. I think it’s going to be challenging for independent brands to scale as rapidly as they’re going to need to scale to compete against all of this new competition on their own. So that’s the why behind the timing of it.
In terms of why Canopy, I’ve known Canopy for quite a while. I met them when we were looking for partners about three and a half years ago. We did not end up putting together a deal at that point in time, but I did get to know the company quite a bit. Since then that company has changed significantly with leadership changes and became a very different company with the Constellation Brands investment behind them.
When I think about the future of the industry and particularly post-legalization, I have certain things that I am looking for in partners. Of course, I am looking for financial strength in a partner. I was really looking for a company that has a very long-term perspective on the industry, with both the proper resources and the proper mindset to make long-term investments for the future. And then my belief is that post-legalization, we’re going to see radical changes in the industry including where products are cultivated in a global market, more distribution outside of dispensaries – and I think liquor stores could be a likely form of distribution at some point in time, so the relationship with Constellation was very interesting and appealing to me. But all of those things wouldn’t mean as much to me if I didn’t feel we didn’t have a good fit in terms of our shared values and how we saw the industry. We spent a lot of time talking about that and I think one of the aspects that really attracted me to Canopy was that we are very aligned on how we see the future of the industry shaping up. Certainly, I think there is a wonderfully viable position for cannabis as an alcohol replacement, however we also have a lot of focus on innovation and the health and wellness aspects of cannabis. I was really looking for a partner that felt the same, and it ended up that we really were aligned on those values.
Biros: What does it look like going forward? Since you’re staying on board, how will your new role change?
Whiteman: My new role doesn’t change at all actually. I woke up last Monday—the week after the big announcement–and it felt very normal getting back to work and having my usual meetings. This was my fifteen minutes of fame and thankfully its diminishing so now it’s just back to work as usual.
But moving forward, we have big plans. Wana is launching in four new markets over the next couple of months, we’re in discussions to launch in an additional six markets, and we have very robust innovation pipeline. So, we’re just really busy right now just executing on our strategy. I am looking forward to getting to know our new colleagues at Canopy better and exploring different collaboration possibilities.
I feel very optimistic. I was thrilled our employees were delighted with the news and morale is very high. The feedback from the rest of the industry has been really positive and overall, I am feeling very good about this decision.
Biros: So you mentioned some expansion plans for four new markets in the next few months. How does the acquisition help Wana Brands expand?
Whiteman: You know we haven’t announced the new states so I can’t speak to those publicly yet. They were all in the works before this deal and are currently in the process of being onboarded. Where it will get interesting is how this deal impacts new states that we move into. Until Canopy decides to exercise the call option [to acquire 100% of membership interests in each Wana entity], we are still an independently owned and run company. So we are still going to be looking for the best partners that we can find in new markets, and the Canopy connection will certainly be helpful to us. But to your point about the plans, we’ll be announcing those new market expansions in the coming weeks.
Biros: As a woman leader with an extremely significant position in the cannabis industry, do you have any advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs, women leaders or other women in the cannabis space?
Whiteman: I do. I posted something on LinkedIn the other day and I’m going to make the same comment to you as I made in that post because I think it’s important and particularly important for young women. People have said a lot of nice things about me in the past couple of weeks and of course everybody loves to hear nice things about themselves. But the truth is, some of them are not true. And one of them that is definitely not true is that I am somehow fearless. And I guess what I would say to women and young entrepreneurs is that fearlessness is a myth.
Being an entrepreneur is hard. You’re putting your money on the line, you’re putting your time on the line, you’re putting your reputation, you’re potentially putting your family’s, your friends’ and your investors’ money on the line. Who would not be afraid against that backdrop? We all have times of feeling fearful, of feeling anxious, of having sleepless nights. So, what I would say is don’t aspire to be fearless. There are other aspirations that are much more useful. For example, aspire to be resilient, aspire to be persistent, aspire to be of service to other people, aspire to be very true to your values and your strategy. Don’t let this mythology of what a “leader” is supposed to look like make you feel bad about your emotions. It’s not about having those emotions, it’s what you do with them.
That’s what I would say to young entrepreneurs and especially to women. Because I do believe that women hold themselves to a very high standard a lot of the time and have a lot of misconceptions of what they’re supposed to be living up to when it comes to leadership.
Biros: What an incredible perspective to have. Okay, one last question for you: what are you doing to celebrate?
Whiteman: So far, I’ve been too busy to celebrate! This just happened so recently. I would like to take a great trip with my kids. I don’t really know I have not had time to figure that out. People tell me I need to go to Disney. But right now, it’s still taking a little while to let it all sink in.
Biros: Wonderful! And Nancy, thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it.
Whiteman: And thank you! So nice to see you in person.
Practicing Law Institute Press’s Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is a one-of-a-kind deep dive into the many regulations governing the industry. Aimed at attorneys representing clients in this space, the treatise offers guidance on a range of interrelated topics including state regulation of medical and non-medical cannabis; federal law, enforcement and preemption and their implications for employment, taxes and banking; and the various aspects of establishing and managing a cannabis enterprise, from growth to licensing, transport and distribution. We spoke with co-authors James T. O’Reilly, professor of Public Health Policy at the College of Medicine of the University of Cincinnati and author of leading references on food and drug law, and Edgar J. Asebey, a founding partner of Keller Asebey Life Science Law and a life sciences attorney with over twenty years of experience, about the intersection of the cannabis business and the law.
Q: From the legal industry’s perspective, how has this area of the law evolved over the past few years – and what would you advise clients in cannabis to look for when engaging legal assistance for their businesses?
James T. O’Reilly & Edgar J. Asebey: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing acceptance of the idea that lawfully serving the needs of cannabis consumers is a commendable business initiative. This evolution in thinking – tied to the myriad business opportunities cannabis presents – has given large, mainstream corporate law firms the incentive to grow practices and develop specialists in this area, which is a very positive development.
But it is not enough for lawyers to know their way around M&A and the capital markets; they must also have experience with federal regulatory bodies. As regulations continue to evolve, it is essential for practitioners to be familiar with the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act as well as the Federal Trade Commission Act. The framework for regulating cannabis products already exists, as can be seen in the Warning Letters sent to hemp and CBD companies by both the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration (as well as, most recently, the FDA and CDC’s warning about delta-8 THC). If a client places their hemp or CBD product into the stream of commerce, that product will be subject to FDA, FTC and relevant state laws. We strongly recommend seeking out advisors who truly understand these regulations and how they align with the regulatory agencies’ procedures and agendas.
Q: What are the most urgent legal and regulatory topics the industry is watching these days?
O’Reilly & Asebey: Our treatise follows and analyzes the most pressing legal issues facing those in the cannabis and hemp space. In our most recent edition, we add discussion of the Final Rule for the establishment of a domestic hemp production program. We think this is a significant development in that it attempted to address some of the industry’s criticism of some provisions found in the Interim Final Rule, particularly around issues of sampling and testing for THC content. The Final Rule clarified issues around THC percentage testing methodologies, but disappointed many in the industry by leaving in place the low 0.3% dry weight threshold for an acceptable hemp THC level. On the other hand, The Final Rule raises the threshold for a negligent violation from 0.5% to 1.0% total THC and limits the number of violations a grower can receive in one year to one, easing potential penalties for violations.
Of course, the regulation of CBD products is on the minds of many in the industry. Key questions remain about whether cannabinoids such as delta-8 THC can be lawfully sold. Since the FDA has provided no clear guidance with regard to the sale and use of CBD and other hemp-derived cannabinoid-containing products, well-meaning businesses find themselves operating in a regulatory gray area. While some states have raced to place delta-8 THC on their controlled substances lists or otherwise regulate it, at the federal level it remains unclear. Our book provides a legal argument showing that current regulations support the lawful production and sale of delta-8 THC. To date, this and other legal arguments have not been tested in the courts and, without FDA guidance, the delta-8 THC sector will remain gray.
Editor’s Note: The Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation is now available for purchase here.
About James T. O’Reilly
James T. O’Reilly of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine is former chair of the 8,000-member Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice of the American Bar Association and has been active in numerous ABA, Federal Bar Association, and state and local bar activities. He retired as Associate General Counsel of The Procter & Gamble Company to teach full-time, and served as a consultant to three federal agencies and to the Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission. He has authored fifty-six texts and more than 230 articles, and his work was cited numerous times in appellate opinions, including “The experts have written . . . ” in a March 2000 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court (Food & Drug Administration v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 120 S. Ct. 1291). He has received numerous honors and awards for his professional and electoral activities and has been listed in Who’s Who in American Law for twenty-five years. He is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law.
About Edgar J. Asebey
Edgar J. Asebey, a partner at Asebey Life Sciences Law PLLC, is a regulatory and transactional attorney with over two decades of experience in federal regulation of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, food, dietary supplement and cosmetics companies. Since 2015, he has been working on cannabis-related matters and transactions, and since 2018, he has provided regulatory compliance, business transactional, venture finance and international trade services to hemp/CBD companies. Mr. Asebey practices before the FDA, the USDA, the CBP, the EPA, and the FTC, representing client companies on regulatory compliance, product approval/registration and FDA enforcement defense matters. He founded and served as president of Andes Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a natural products drug discovery company, from 1994 to 2000, and has served as in-house counsel to two life sciences companies. Mr. Asebey is a member of the American Bar Association (Section on Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice: Food and Drug Committee and International Committee), the Food & Drug Law Institute (FDLI), the Dade County Bar Association, and BioFlorida.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.
We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.
One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.
These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.
While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.
Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?
Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.
When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.
Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?
Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.
I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.
There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.
Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?
Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.
Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?
We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.
We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.
At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.
We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.
Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?
Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.
“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.
We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.
It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.
Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?
Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.
So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.
So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.
Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.
Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?
Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.
If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.
I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.
If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.
Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!
Bespoke Financial was the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Founded in June of 2018, Bespoke offers four types of lending products: Invoice financing, inventory financing, purchase money financing and a general line of credit. With just over two years of originating loans to clients, they have benefitted from being a first mover in the cannabis lending space.
George Mancheril is the founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial. He has over fourteen years of experience in finance, with a special focus on asset-based lending, off balance sheet financing of commercial assets and structured credit. Following a stint with Goldman Sachs, he worked at Guggenheim Partners Investment Management’s Structured Credit Group in Los Angeles where he worked on structuring esoteric asset financing for a variety of commercial assets including airplanes, container leases and receivables.
Since 2018, Mancheril and his team at Bespoke Financial have deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults and across eleven states. We sat down with Mancheril and asked him about the history of his business, how it’s been received so far and how the past few years of financial activity in the cannabis sector might shape the future.
Cannabis Industry Journal: What is Bespoke Financial in a nutshell?
George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Bespoke offers legal cannabis businesses revolving lines of credit that address the top problem in the industry – lack of access to non-dilutive, scalable financing to capitalize on growth opportunities and improve profitability. Due to the federal illegality of cannabis, traditional banking institutions cannot work with our clients even though these operators are working within the legal regulatory framework of their state. Bespoke solves this problem for businesses across the cannabis supply chain along with ancillary companies affected by the lack of access to traditional capital markets.
CIJ: How does your company help cannabis businesses?
Mancheril: Bespoke Financial offers 4 lending products – all are structured as a revolving line of credit but each allows our clients to access capital in a unique way based on their specific needs. Our Invoice Financing product, allows businesses to borrow capital against their Accounts Receivables in order to manage general business expenses, particularly if the borrower’s business growth is slowed due to a long cashflow conversion cycle. Inventory Financing and Purchase Money Financing allow our clients to finance payments to their vendors, which helps our clients achieve economies of scale by increasing their purchasing power. Lastly our general Line of Credit allows for the most flexibility for our clients to utilize our financing by either financing payments made directly to vendors or drawing funds into the client’s bank account to manage business expenses.
CIJ: I know the company is only a few years old, but can you tell me about your company’s success so far?
Mancheril: [Clarification, Bespoke was founded in June 2018 so we’ve been around for 3 years but we now have over 2 years of originating loans to clients.] Bespoke Financial has benefitted by being a first mover in the cannabis lending space as the first licensed lender specifically addressing the financing needs of cannabis operators, starting in early 2019. Over the past 2 years we have developed and refined our proprietary underwriting model to identify over 50 active clients spanning the entire cannabis supply chain. Since inception, Bespoke has deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults to date and expanded our geographic footprint across 11 states. Our growth and success highlights our company’s expertise in structuring financing solutions which address the unique capital needs of cannabis companies.
CIJ: Can you discuss how the recent M&A activity, current and recent market trends, as well as the pandemic has affected your company’s growth?
Mancheril: The cannabis industry overcame a variety of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, ending the year with record sales in both new and existing markets. The support from state and local governments, evidenced by the industry’s essential business designation and the easing of regulations, coupled with increasing consumer adoption of cannabis combined to increase the industry’s demand for capital throughout the pandemic. Bespoke was well positioned to partner with cannabis companies across the supply chain and was proud to help our clients thrive during this pivotal period.
Coming into 2021, the cannabis industry and investors shared a very positive outlook for the future based on the previous year’s experience and expectations of material easing of federal regulation. While M&A activity in the industry has increased over the past 6 months, the overall consensus has been that both the frequency of exit opportunities and the corresponding valuations will continue to increase as federal decriminalization opens new sources of capital and materially changes investors’ valuation assumptions. In general, we’ve seen cannabis companies focused on both capitalizing on the increasing opportunity presented by the industry’s organic growth and maximizing the benefits of future regulation changes by utilizing the resources and capital currently available to increase revenue, expand into new markets, and work towards profitability. All of these factors have further compounded the industry’s demand for financing and we expect to see continued growth in our lending activity in line with the industry’s growth.
CIJ: Who has been your most successful client?
Mancheril: We have a handful of cases studies and client success stories here on our website. One of the most exciting growth stories we have seen has been our client DreamFields whose in-house brand, Jeeter, is now the #1 pre-roll brand in the state of California. Prior to working with Bespoke, the brand was not ranked in the top 25 but was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with us and achieve the #1 spot in their product category.
Anyone in the cannabis industry is well aware that theft of crops can economically devastate a grower. Security is critical, and thankfully, growers and dispensaries have many tools available to protect their investment. There is simply no excuse for not having a solid security posture to keep your business in compliance, from public-private partnerships to advanced security tools – in fact, it’s required in most jurisdictions.
In 2020, nationwide cannabis sales increased 67%, and support for legal marijuana reached an all-time high of 68%. New Frontier Data found that U.S. legal cannabis market is projected to double to $41.5 billion by 2025.
The industry’s advancement impacts numerous areas such as job and tax revenue creation and providing a wide variety of valuable opportunities. For cannabis facilities to keep up with the market expansion and experience success, they must face two significant challenges: achieving adequate security and efficient business operations. Though both can be seen as separate concerns, growers and producers must merge processes and solutions to tackle the issue as a whole.
Along with rapid growth, dispensaries face traditional security risks, such as workplace violence and retail theft, while cybersecurity risks have also become more prevalent. These potential issues make it clear that the stakes are high, and as the potential impact on a business rises, the need for real-time, predictive response increases. Insider threats are another issue plaguing the industry when you look at the rate of theft, diversion and burglary that is attributable to employees.
The cannabis market is complex: it’s expanding rapidly, has to meet essential regulatory requirements and faces high-security risks. Therefore, security needs to be looked at holistically since it can be challenging to determine where a potential threat may originate.
With security top of mind, it is critical to move away from responsive behaviors and seek ways to manage security in a manner that gets ahead of threats, prevent them before they happen and respond to them in real-time. But does a grower or retailer have the time and expertise to manage all this while keeping an eye on how security affects the business?
Remote Security Operations
The ability to comply with government regulations and protect a valuable cannabis crop at all stages of its journey from seed to sale makes security systems a mission-critical asset for cannabis growers. Security operations centers create a safer and more productive environment and provide state-of-the-art tools to protect employees, retail locations and grow facilities. But some businesses in the cannabis market may not have the resources or space to have their centralized security operations, leading them to piece-meal security together or do the best with what they can afford at the time. Running these facilities can also be prohibitively expensive.
But new options take the process of security off the table. The business can focus on the growth of its core functions. Remote security operations services allow companies to take advantage of advanced security services typically only possible in larger enterprise environments. These services are offered on a subscription basis, delivered through the cloud, and are entirely customizable to detect risks unique to your business operations while saving each company significant expense.
Centralized security operations centers leverage intelligent tools, standard operating procedures and proven analytic methods to provide cannabis facilities with the information and guidance necessary to mitigate issues like retail or grow theft before they can have a significant impact.
The integrated, holistic response center staffed by experienced operators and security experts delivers a comprehensive security and regulatory compliance method. This approach is designed to provide complete data about what is happening across a cannabis business, from seed to sale, and how individual events can impact the company as a whole. As a result, stakeholders get the security intelligence they need, without the high overhead, personnel investments and complex daily management.
For those businesses in the cannabis market looking to supplement their security operations with other workforce but may not have the budget or infrastructure to do so, remote security operations services are something you should consider. With the experts handling all the heavy lifting, leaders can focus on growth. And, right now, in the cannabis industry, the sky is the limit in terms of opportunity.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
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. As an MSO and an early mover in the space, a significant part of MariMed’s current strategy is to complete the acquisition and consolidation of the licensed state cannabis businesses it has developed. It takes seasoned leadership to make that happen, and MariMed’s is led by one of the most experienced and successful MSO management teams in the industry. Over the last eight years, Bob Fireman and his colleagues have won 17 licenses in 6 states, and designed and developed over 300,000 square feet of cannabis cultivation, production and dispensing facilities.
MariMed has also developed a portfolio of award-winning cannabis brands and infused products which are licensed, manufactured and distributed in Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. A recently announced $46 million financing for a facility with Hadron Healthcare Fund will help repay all MariMed debt other than mortgage-backed bank loans and one convertible note, as well as help upgrade and expand the company’s owned and managed cannabis facilities.
We spoke with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed. Bob started the foundations of MariMed in 2008 after getting into large-scale hydroponics for urban sustainable agriculture. Prior to MariMed, Bob served as a startup lawyer focused on tech and emerging industries.
Aaron Green: Bob, tell me about how you got started in the cannabis industry.
Bob Fireman: I practiced law for decades. Part of my practice was to help startups in all sorts of industries, particularly technology and new emerging markets. At one point, I was introduced to a fascinating sustainable food business opportunity – to build hydroponic farms on rooftops in cities across the country.
When one of our projects in San Francisco hit some roadblocks, our team there pivoted to what was becoming the Wild West of California cannabis. My friend and current MariMed CFO, Jon Levine, and I began investing and managing a cultivation site there. That’s where we built our early foundation of industry knowledge.
Fast forward a few years, and I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in the drafting of the proposed Massachusetts medical cannabis legislation.
Through that work, we met a team that had won one of three cannabis licenses in Rhode Island. We formed a real estate LLC and raised the capital to develop a seed to sale cannabis facility in Providence, which was later leased to the Slater Center, a not-for-profit medical cannabis licensed business. Today, the Slater Center is a nationally acclaimed operation that services over 10,000 medical patients.
From there, we took our know-how and formed a new entity that was the formal beginning of the company we now know as MariMed. Initially, we helped win licenses for clients in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois and Nevada. We also provided management services, working capital and other necessities. Under our management, we organically built these businesses from the ground up, advancing best practices and somewhat quietly creating a network of best-in-class operations throughout the industry.
That led to the consolidation of those businesses that we’re focused on today as a core strategic pillar.
I’m incredibly proud of our team, the core of which has been at this for 10 years. We’ve watched other MSOs try different models of success, with varying degrees of success. For us, focusing on growth markets, building at a reasonable and scalable clip, attracting incredible talent at all levels of the company, and developing fantastic brands that customers love, are the ingredients that have translated to where we are now – strong performance and an exceptionally bright future. “Slow and steady wins the race” has become a mantra.
Green: What trends are you looking at right now? What’s on your radar?
Fireman: My radar has a singular focus, and that’s to create shareholder value. That’s why completing the consolidation of the cannabis licensed businesses we’ve developed and manage into our public company is so critical. Back in the day, the initial available licenses were in medical-only state programs where applicants were required to be not-for-profit state companies. Accordingly, we raised the capital in the real estate entity which leased facilities to the licensees. Our revenue was from rents, management services and licensing fees.
In 2019, we implemented a new strategic plan to consolidate these businesses. While that translates to our being structured similarly to other MSOs in that we are a vertically integrated seed to sale company, we are distinct in our operational excellence, quality product portfolio, and strong balance sheet. Other MSOs have raised large amounts of capital to pay large sums to acquire licensed state cannabis businesses and have found themselves over-leveraged and challenged to assimilate other companies’ methodologies and cultures. By consolidating the businesses and talented people we developed and managed from day one and utilizing our best practices and processes system-wide, we realize enormous capital efficiencies.
Our strategy is paying off. Our core cannabis revenue in 2020 increased 207% to $50.9 million, and our 10k reported EBITDA of $16.3 million. And now we’re on track to double our revenue in 2021.
The last piece of the puzzle is to let the world know what we’ve been doing. Slow and steady has worked for us but gone are the days of doing so quietly. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and exceedingly bullish on what’s to come.
Green: What do you look for in an M&A target?
Fireman: When M&A makes sense for us, we first look for single operators and entrepreneurs in states where we are not active and look to partner with business leaders that had the vision and the courage to get into this industry and build solid cannabis businesses from the ground up. I’m looking for businesses that could benefit from being part of a larger, more experienced and well-capitalized company like MariMed. Obviously, as an MSO with a solid platform, MariMed is approached regularly by other MSOs and banks suggesting candidates for M&A opportunities. Lining up with a company that has complementary cannabis licenses in other states and who shares our vision and ethics could be a win-win situation. They must embrace our commitment to diversity, the environment and proper corporate governance. We have been somewhat reticent to do this until we see some increase in our share price and market capitalization.
Green: Are there any new products, or product trends that you’re looking at?
Fireman: Marimed looks to be the most trusted source of high-quality cannabis products that consistently delivers innovative health and wellness solutions to our patients and customers. Our lab scientists are constantly creating and testing new and innovative formulations of cannabinoid compounds including CBD, THCa, CBG, CBN and others that will improve the health and wellness of our customers.
Our brand portfolio is ever-expanding with new and better product offerings. Our award-winning Betty’s Eddies Fruit Chews brand is adding new SKUs of varieties and flavors for both medical and adult use programs. Our Nature’s Heritage flower and concentrates brand is adding a line of solventless concentrates, live rosin, as well as new formulations for RSO, an oil popular with medical patients. Kalm Fusion is expanding its successful line of powdered drink mixes as we see more movement in the cannabis beverage category.
Microdosing is hugely popular right now, and we’re rolling out products in the 2-5mg dosage range. Health and dietary concerns are top of mind as well, and we offer products that are vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free. Ultimately, we want to be sure that we have something on the shelves for every single consumer. The financial hardship created by the pandemic has made consumers more attracted to value added products such as popcorn buds.
Green: You recently announced an equity financing from Hadron. I’m curious to learn more about it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective if you can share any of that information.
Fireman: Over the last year, access to the capital markets for equity raises in cannabis public companies was difficult. The cost of debt was and is still high, and we were looking for a long-term financial partner that understood the industry and could assist us. Hadron Capital has been successful for several years investing in some of the most successful MSOs and they saw the value and potential in MariMed’s experienced management and great assets.
Hadron invested $46 million in equity in MariMed this March. Approximately $16 million was utilized to retire all our short- and long-term debt but for bank secured debt and one convertible note. $7 million is committed to funding our capex and expanding the capabilities of our facilities, enabling us to grow more flower and automate production. The balance of funding will support our consolidation strategy to fund two more roll ups of state licensed cannabis businesses into the public company.
Going forward, it is comforting to have a capital partner to assist us in future acquisitions and M&A opportunities.
Green: I’d love to learn more about your Nature’s Heritage brand, particularly as it relates to the cultivation and the flower products.
Fireman: Our COO Tim Shaw has assembled a cultivation and production team with expertise in all aspects of genetics, growing methodologies, extraction techniques, and packaging innovation. That’s provided us a rich collection of quality genetics that make up Nature’s Heritage, our top-selling flower, oil and concentrate brand in Massachusetts and Maryland. We’ve recently expanded the line to include Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and solventless concentrates (including live rosin) and have been receiving stellar feedback.
Green: What are you interested in learning more about?
Fireman: Over the last decade, the MariMed core team has seen the emergence and amazing growth of the cannabis industry. The initial medical programs in California and Colorado have now led to some form of legal medical or adult use cannabis programs in over 33 states and districts.
We are most interested in learning and following the federal, state, and international laws and regulations. It is vital to know how these laws will affect our company and the industry as a whole. When might full federal legalization become a reality? What might different versions of the law be? Will state legal programs be protected as well as the companies that took the risk in investing in the industry at its nascent state and how? What will FDA requirements and regulations look like? What medical claims will companies be allowed to make, and what kind of research or trials will be required to put a product on the shelf? What are the ramifications of the MORE Act or the SAFE Banking Act?
Responsible MSOs need to be prepared to rise to or above the standards of care of other industries. A lot of this was impossible in the past because of federal prohibition laws. Soon, if not already, labs and manufacturing processes will need to be GMP certified and more. Consumer data will need to be HIPAA compliant. Cannabis companies have to be good corporate citizens: diversity and equal opportunity should be embedded in business decisions, and commitment to ESG and sound environmental and social policies with good corporate governance need to be in planning and implemented.
Following the laws and holding ourselves to the highest possible safety and business standards will allow the cannabis industry to finally become “mainstream.”
Green: Alright, great. Thank you, Bob. That concludes the interview!
Charlotte’s Web Holdings, the company that just about launched the entire CBD industry, announced this week that they have just been approved for registration on Health Canada’s list of approved cultivars (LOAC) for 2021. Three of their proprietary hemp cultivars have made the cut, gaining the company access to the Canadian market.
Jared Stanley, co-founder and chief cultivation officer at Charlotte’s Web, says they plan to lead the market in Canadian hemp-derived CBD products. “The majority of approved cultivars on the LOAC to date have been for industrial hemp grown to produce food, fiber, and animal feed,” says Stanley. “Now our approved cultivars are paving the way for full-spectrum hemp CBD demand in Canada and most importantly, will provide access to Charlotte’s Web products in Canada.”
Largely due to the difference in regulatory approaches between Canada and the U.S., the CBD product market in Canada is somewhat small. Health Canada currently regulates CBD products the same as products containing more than 0.3% THC. In the U.S., a checkerboard of state laws, the 2018 Farm Bill and the subsequent state hemp programs led to massive growth for the CBD product marketplace.
Charlotte’s Web is one of the leading hemp-derived CBD companies operating in the United States. With the soon-to-be expansion into Canada, the company hopes to develop a global footprint, says Deanie Elsner, president and CEO of Charlotte’s Web. “Today, Charlotte’s Web is the leading hemp wellness company in the U.S. with the most recognized and trusted hemp CBD extract,” says Elsner. “We aspire to be the world’s leading botanicals wellness company, entering countries with an asset light model where federal laws permit hemp extracts for health and wellness. Israel and Canada are included in the first steps of our international expansion.”
This follows the launch of their first CBD-infused beverage line sold in the United States, Quatreau. In the initial phase of the agreement, Southern Glazer’s will distribute the beverage line in seven states, with plans to expand that footprint considerably in the coming months.
Being a national distributor with a strong presence throughout the country, Southern Glazer’s will be moving Canopy’s beverage line in conventional retail stores. The press release seems to credit Canopy’s partnership with Constellation Brands as the catalyst for the new distribution deal. “The agreement also showcases the benefits of the company’s strategic relationship with Constellation Brands, the global beverage leader,” reads the release.
Back in 2018, Constellation Brands made a $4 billion bet on Canopy, but immediate profitability did not come to fruition. This new deal with Southern Glazer’s, as well as the launch of the Quatreau beverage line, seems to prove Constellation’s bet is beginning to pay off, or at least showing signs of a long term play for market share.
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?
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!
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