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The B2B Marketplace Trend Comes to Cannabis (Finally)

By Adam Benko, Brian Mayfield
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PlantTag

Ancillary services are a hot topic in the cannabis industry, as they are in many niche industries turning to B2B marketplaces to connect with specialized expertise and products.

Platforms such as Amazon Business, Flexport, SupplyHog and others have emerged to connect mainstream business sectors with the vendors and services they need, but things look a lot different in the cannabis space. The many disparate aspects of launching, running and scaling a cannabis business—and vetting dozens of service providers clamoring for your business—can feel like playing whack-a-mole blindfolded.

While a business consultancy can do some of the heavy lifting, there are reasons why this traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach is problematic. However, the rise of legalization is creating new avenues for founders in both established and emerging markets to take charge of their destiny and secure the services that truly meet their needs.

Understanding what’s available can help founders avoid pitfalls, from inadequate insurance coverage and predatory lenders to inexperienced service providers seeking to cash in on the “green gold rush.”

The Importance of Regulatory Knowledge

One reason B2B services look so different in the cannabis industry is because the industry itself is still rapidly evolving, as new state markets for medical cannabis and recreational adult use come online and states constantly amend their regulations. There’s also the sprawling scope of compliance requirements facing a cannabis operator, from securing tightly zoned real estate to building a facility with adequate security, to integrating into the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system.

PlantTag
A plant tagged with a barcode and date for tracking

It’s critical to engage with experts who are knowledgeable on the regulatory variances of the state (or states) where the business will operate. Someone who has experience interpreting cannabis regulations will know, for example, if you should have a real estate lease locked in prior to applying or if a particular state would prefer you move through the pre-opening process in a different order.

Another reason ancillary services are so important is that cannabis regulations aren’t standardized on the federal level or even state to state, which requires an especially deep, granular level of understanding of market trends and compliance demands. That can make the difference not only between a successful business launch and a swift nose dive, but also between a business surviving a major disaster or setback and becoming past tense.

Insurance and Lending Issues

Every business owner knows they need insurance, for example, but not every insurance broker knows what specific coverages to lock in to ensure a payout if a dispensary is vandalized or if a wildfire burns a grow operation to the ground. While federal legislation like the Clarifying Law Around Insurance of Marijuana (CLAIM) Act could one day make it easier for national insurance companies to serve legal cannabis businesses, currently criminal conduct exclusions can be used to keep plant-touching business owners from getting their full payout.

Fires in Sonoma County devastated cannabis crops in Northern California back in 2017.

Not only does federal prohibition make it challenging for a cannabis business operator to find proper insurance coverage, access financial networks and establish employee benefits programs to keep industry jobs competitive, even seeking investment capital can leave cannabis companies exposed to unfavorable terms. Just look at the case of iAnthus, a multistate operator that claims to have been burned in a deal with Gotham Green Partners while looking for expansion funding.

So how can cannabis leadership locate and vet professional services, particularly in the critical startup stage when it feels like everything has to happen right away? That’s where the B2B marketplace trend comes in.

The Advent of Vendor-Agnostic B2B Marketplaces for Cannabis

While platforms such as Amazon Business have offerings for a variety of mainstream industries, they’re not tailored for cannabis. But there is a growing field of vendor-agnostic specialists helping cannabis founders make the right moves.

Vendor-agnostic consultancies are nimble and adaptable in a way that broad-scale platforms are not

Necessity absolutely produced this particular innovation, which upends the traditional single-funnel consultancy model to instead create a village that can raise a variety of cannabis businesses. Vendor-agnostic consultancies are nimble and adaptable in a way that broad-scale platforms are not. And rather than being tied to a particular suite of products and service providers the way traditional business consultancies often are, the vendor-agnostic approach gives both consultants and cannabis founders much-needed flexibility.

In a cannabis B2B marketplace, a pool of inventory-tracking software vendors, for example, can be sorted to allow for easy comparison shopping based on whether the operator is a single-state startup looking for basic integration with the state compliance system, or an MSO that needs a more robust platform. And the customization extends from there—vertically integrated businesses versus standalone wholesale producers, plant-touching businesses versus other professional service providers and beyond.

As more and more industries specialize, it’s no wonder ancillary services are having a renaissance and replacing the traditional one-size-fits-all model popularized decades ago. But it’s also no wonder that the cannabis industry needs an especially unique approach to professional support for niche fields. The more this industry expands, the more founders and their B2B partners need to roll with their own solutions.

An Interview with Bespoke Financial Co-Founder & CEO George Mancheril

By Aaron Green
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Founded in 2018, Bespoke Financial is the nation’s first fintech lender focused on the cannabis industry. Led by a premier team of experts in the credit, technology and cannabis industries, Bespoke Financial has financed more than $800M in GMV across the US cannabis industry and is on track to deploy $1B by end of year 2022 via their revolving lines of credit. Bespoke’s financing empowers cannabis companies to increase purchasing power, remove working capital limitations and accelerate growth in a rapidly growing industry. The company is backed by respected venture capital firms such as Casa Verde Capital, The General Partnership, Greenhouse Capital Partners and Ceres Group Holdings.

Bespoke recently entered into a milestone partnership with Blaze as the cannabis industry’s first tech-enabled B2B lending product available in CA & MA. Through this partnership, Bespoke and Blaze will be the first to bring “Buy Now Pay Later” to the industry. With just the click of a button, vendors can utilize this BNPL feature by paying directly within the Blaze platform via Bespoke’s financing with a 60-day repayment term on all vendor payments while minimizing dispensaries’ reliance on cash transactions. 

We caught up with George Mancheril, co-founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial to learn more about trends in cannabis lending and their unique partnership with Blaze. George was the company’s CFO prior to taking the CEO position in 2019. Prior to Bespoke, George was a VP at Guggenheim Partners in California. 

Aaron Green: What does it mean to be a fintech lender in cannabis?

George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is a first mover in fintech lending for the cannabis industry, equipped with a robust network of investors, industry expertise and a multi-year track record solidifying our credibility in the space. We are focused on working with established cannabis companies who can use our financing to unlock growth, profitability, and success in the near- and long-term future.

Cannabis lenders must navigate a complex web of both cannabis and financing regulations, specific to each state, while trying to identify good borrowers in a nascent industry comprised of new companies. This has caused banks, traditional lenders, and institutional investors to avoid cannabis despite the unique growth opportunities and economic potential of the industry overall.

Green: What makes Bespoke different from other cannabis lenders in the business?

Mancheril: Unlike the few cannabis lenders active in the market, Bespoke Financial combines best-in-class technology and lending products designed to address the specific financing needs of the industry to better serve our clients. Our tech platform offers a simple interface for our clients to easily access financing, monitor loan balances, and manage payments. Bespoke’s technology allows us to service a broad array of clients in numerous markets across the US, offering our clients a reliable financing partner for their immediate and future needs.

Green: What markets do you serve in cannabis? Are you able to finance plant-touching operations?

George Mancheril, Co-Founder & CEO of Bespoke Financial

Mancheril: Bespoke works with cannabis companies across the entire supply chain within 15 U.S. cannabis markets, with the vast majority of our borrowers being plant-touching operations, Our portfolio comprises cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, dispensaries, non-plant touching cannabis brands, ancillary service providers and CBD companies. Our financing options have helped a wide variety of cannabis operations overcome working capital limitations and capitalize on new growth opportunities and increase profitability.

Green: You recently announced a “Buy Now Pay Later” partnership with Blaze. What problems do dispensaries have that you are solving for there?

Mancheril: As broader economic activity slows in the US with the threat of a recession impacting both businesses and consumers, dispensaries face supply, demand, and fundraising challenges:

  1. Consumer demand challenges:
    1. Cannabis consumers in 2022 are significantly more price sensitive than recent years for several reasons.
      1. High inflation over the past 1yr+ has reduced disposable income for consumers in the US.
      2. Post-COVID return to normalcy has allowed consumers to spend disposable income on many goods and services which were largely been unavailable since the beginning of 2020 (ie travel).
      3. Concern about a recession and slower wage growth has further reduced consumer spending.
      4. Illicit cannabis has always been the main competition for legal dispensaries with little enforcement or curtailing of black-market activity to note in the US.
    2. New cannabis consumers are gravitating towards smaller (but growing) product categories (edibles, concentrates, infused beverages, etc.) as opposed to just purchasing packaged flower. Dispensaries must carry a wide array of products and brands in order to better attract and service new and existing customers.
  2. Supply side challenges:
      1. Mature cannabis markets, such as California, have been saturated with over supply since Q2 2021 leading to inventory build ups and declining wholesale prices for cultivators, manufacturers, and brands (collectively referred to as suppliers). In this environment, suppliers are offering discounts to incentivize customers (i.e. dispensaries) who can:
        1. Purchase larger quantities more frequently to allow suppliers to move inventory before the product quality degrades.
        2. Pay COD for purchases as cashflow and capital are very important for suppliers during periods of economic stress.
      2. Dispensaries without the financial means to conform to suppliers’ preferences will be at a considerable disadvantage as they will continue to have trouble sourcing popular products at the lowest possible cost.
  1. Fundraising challenges:
    1. Cannabis’ federal illegality has resulted in a much smaller universe of potential capital providers. Once a potential lender or investor is identified, typically the application process requires time and resources to complete which puts dispensaries in an especially disadvantageous position. Large MSOs, who tend to attract most of the available capital, can rely on internal finance teams to source capital whereas dispensaries are much more constrained and require a simpler, faster, and easier application process.

Our partnership with Blaze to offer B2B BNPL to dispensaries addresses these challenges and more. With access to our financing, dispensaries are empowered with:

  1. Fast access to financing without a lengthy application process, entirely housed within the Blaze POS’ platform
    1. Dispensaries on the Blaze platform do not need to seek out lenders or weigh various financing options.
    2. No materials need to be gathered for the application.
    3. At the click of a button, dispensaries gain access to capital which they are free to use as they see fit with no obligation.
  1. Easy to understand financing
    1. No obligation: dispensaries have full discretion to use our financing only when they choose.
    2. No prepayment penalties or additional fees.
  1. Increased purchasing power, enabling dispensaries to
    1. Carry a wider array of cannabis products and brands to better service consumer needs.
    2. Purchase a higher quantity of inventory from suppliers to qualify for volume-based discounts.
    3. Pay COD for purchases to qualify for early payment discounts.
    4. Offer lower prices to cautious consumers as a result of these discounts, thereby increasing sales and gross profit while strengthening their relationships with suppliers.

Green: Can you explain your decision to launch in CA and MA first? 

Mancheril: While our ultimate goal is to offer B2B BNPL in all legal cannabis markets, we launched in CA and MA first because these states represent the largest and fastest growing markets in the US respectively. California was the first state that both Bespoke and Blaze launched in individually, so it was a natural starting point for our BNPL partnership. Massachusetts’ continued growth is compelling for any service provider and we believe our BNPL financing will be as successful addressing the needs and challenges in this newer market alongside those in more mature states.

Green: What trends are you seeing in US cannabis debt financing?

Mancheril: Since 2020, we’ve seen many MSOs increasingly rely on debt financing as opposed to equity capital. MSOs accounted for over ~80% of the debt raised over the past 2 years despite only representing a fraction of the broader cannabis market. Additionally, commercial real estate financing options for cannabis companies have increased over the same time period, driven by the growth of cannabis focused REITs. In general, by the end of 2021, we saw an increasing number of debt investors focused on higher yields participate in cannabis deals.

The recent macroeconomic volatility, increase in rates, and widening credit spreads in 2022 have slowed and slightly reversed the trends seen over the past 3 years. While banks and traditional lenders continue to wait for federal legalization, the vast majority of cannabis companies continue to have very limited access to debt financing options. Over the past quarter, we have seen debt investors leverage the recent illiquidity to negotiate higher interest rates and equity components in new debt deals, a trend we expect to continue until the broader economy strengthens or federal legalization gains traction.

At Bespoke, we empower entrepreneurs to grow their businesses without having to surrender control of their companies or visions. We are excited to continually be market leaders addressing this very vital need for cannabis companies of all sizes in all market environments.

Green: What trends are you following in US regulations and emerging markets?

Mancheril: The most recent headlines have been mixed for US cannabis regulations. Federal legalization is a huge point of focus with SAFE Banking failing (again) to survive the US Senate while the introduction of the revised CAOA offers a glimpse of hope. We believe federal regulatory changes will continue to be debated and discussed without any meaningful progress over the next 2 years but the current discussion of the CAOA revisions will provide the best insight on lawmakers’ priorities. On the local level, the list of states with adult-use sales continues to expand and we would expect to see a handful of new markets ushered in by voters in 2022.

Green: What would federal legalization mean for the cannabis lending industry? How do you stay ahead of the curve?

Mancheril: Federal legalization can occur in a variety of ways, including rescheduling cannabis (currently Schedule 1), descheduling cannabis entirely from the CSA, deferring to state specific regulation, implementing a national cannabis regulatory framework, or some combination of all of the above. The complexity of future regulatory changes makes the timeline for legalization difficult to forecast but we believe that the path forward will be comprised of multiple legislative changes over a number of years as opposed to a comprehensive reform addressing all the relevant points at once.

Based on the interests and goals of all stakeholders in this conversation, we believe that:

  1. Cannabis de-scheduling or rescheduling is unlikely to occur before 2025
  2. Any federal legislation which is approved will require long transition periods for new rules to be finalized, implemented, and adopted by relevant stakeholders (state regulators, courts, cannabis operators, financial institutions, etc.)
  3. Federal lawmakers may allow for financial institutions to service the cannabis industry prior to de-scheduling through limited scope legislation like SAFE banking
  4. Federal legislation will have a difficult time balancing deference to state specific cannabis regulation while enabling federal agencies such as the FDA and Treasury department to issue guidelines and rules for the broader industry. Too much federal agency interference will jeopardize existing & functioning cannabis markets while too much deference will impede vital oversight and consumer protection.
  5. We believe interstate commerce will not be allowed immediately following federal legalization. Interstate commerce will benefit larger MSOs and states with mature cannabis markets (which are hampered by oversupply) at the expense of smaller single state operators and new markets. State governments are motivated to legalize cannabis in the pursuit of tax revenue and economic opportunity for their constituents, both of which would be significantly reduced for newer markets competing with out of state operators.

Regardless of which path federal legalization takes in the coming years, the net benefit for the industry overall will be clear. Setting aside the societal benefit from expunging criminal records for non-violent offenders and freeing enforcement agencies to focus on more serious issues, any progress towards legalization would significantly reduce the challenges that cannabis operators face today. Cannabis companies will see a reduction in operating expenses, a wider array of options for basic business services like insurance and marketing, and an increase in consumer demand as the stigma of illegality fades into memory. Allowing banks to service the industry would remove cash as the primary form of payment, entice larger pools of capital to enter the cannabis market, and in general de-risk the industry tremendously. Bespoke will continue in our role as market leader and cannabis industry advocate in this new paradigm by empowering our clients with even greater access to the capital and services vital to their continued success.

3 Pillars of Cannabis Banking Compliance

By Mark Lozzi
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Few people will disagree that financial compliance isn’t the most exciting topic within the cannabis industry. But compliance is, and always will be, the engine grease to the legal cannabis market. Cannabis operators have the arduous task of dealing with multiple layers of compliance, both operational (maintaining and adhering to regulations enforced by the state licensing board) and financial. These compliance measures include managing everything from seed-to-sale systems for all plant-related activity to on-site requirements like facility access points and alarms systems to name a few.

With complex compliance requirements for the business, the last thing cannabis operators want to think about is financial compliance. We created Confia on this notion. Just as cannabis regulators impose the tracking of plants through the supply chain via a seed-to-sale system, we have developed a storyboard similarly designed to follow the money, which is the equivalent of a transaction-to-deposit system.

Having experience in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the world’s largest banks across multiple countries. This experience has afforded us the luxury of working alongside regulators, chief compliance officers and chief risk officers, understanding how risk is perceived by financial institutions and how it ought to be mitigated. It was this access and knowledge that allowed us to effectively reform, enhance and improve the antiquated BSA programs with a technology-enabled process. Leveraging technology is a necessity, almost a requirement, for the cannabis industry as legalization nears and banking access begins to broaden.

Jamming cannabis requirements into an existing BSA program doesn’t scale well. BSA programs are very manual, descriptive and process oriented. So, we’ve taken our prior experience and success in banking to form Confia, distilling the complexities and simplifying the deliverables surrounding cannabis banking compliance. To best articulate cannabis banking requirements, I break it down into three pillars.

Pillar One: KYC-Enhanced Due Diligence

The first pillar is the client-onboarding bucket or KYC – Know Your Customer. In the complex world of cannabis banking, banks must know and understand their clients to great depths. It’s not enough to simply know that the client exists; you also have to understand whether or not that client could be a potential risk to the bank, and one step further, the financial system. Cannabis is a high-risk industry, so the KYC requirement is escalated to a deeper diligence and review, called Enhanced Due Diligence (EDD).

Cannabis is a high-risk industry so extra due diligence is needed

Banks need to know and understand their customers’ story, and all the key parties (officers, directors, and those with key decision-making powers or access to the bank accounts) within that organization. This includes reviewing personal, business, and legal history – not to mention watchlists and negative news presence. An initial onboarding review must then be followed with daily screening and monitoring of all watchlists and adverse media. Typically, banks do KYC refreshes every three years. In cannabis, a full refresh should be done annually with the daily monitoring systems in place.

The high-risk nature of the industry also requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction, even if one of the parties, whether a payer or recipient, is not a client of your bank. Unlike traditional banking sectors, reliance on other banks’ KYC programs is far less defensible in the cannabis industry.

Pillar Two: Transactional Monitoring & Detection

Tracking and monitoring the actual financial transactions comprises the second pillar required for cannabis banking. At Confia, we have focused on streamlining processes, so the cannabis operator can seamlessly support the compliance obligation for every transaction. A bank must demonstrate supporting documentation for every cannabis transaction, and gathering such information is a large undertaking in and of itself and can pose future issues if not done properly, see the pitfalls for lack of compliance. Banks are obligated to understand the nature and reason for each transaction, the source of funds, ensure cannabis licenses are in good standing for all parties, and collect evidence such as accounting records and seed-to-sale data.

Core to transaction monitoring in the traditional sense, is the overarching support through anomaly detection. Relying on information is important, but testing those inputs keeps everyone honest. It is important to evaluate transactions from a holistic point of view relative to peers and relative to the general contents of a transaction. This anomaly detection layer is your last line of defense, and as new information is collected, it continues to refine itself.

Pillar Three: Filing and Reporting Requirements

The third component to compliant cannabis banking is regulatory filing and reporting. Once a client is onboarded, the account requires an initial suspicious activity report or SAR-Initial within 30 days of that client being approved by the bank. Then, a report must be filed every 90 days after that for all the transactions of that cannabis operator. Banks must file the SAR-Initial and the Continuing-SAR reports for each cannabis client they have.

The high-risk nature of the industry requires a level of diligence on all parties to a transaction

Solutions like Confia automate the filing process and support the filing with transactional data evidenced on our distributed ledger of record. This provides immutable audibility and simplifies the process for all parties involved.

Compliance Requirements After US Legalization

The anticipation of federal legalization and banking reform bills has many operators hoping for easier banking. Yet, in my opinion, regulatory oversight and audits will likely increase after such reform or legalization. As other financial institutions start to support cannabis, it will inadvertently create greater opportunity and expose the financial system to nefarious or illegitimate transaction activity. This is why cannabis banking will be carefully monitored by regulators, and more so, why banks will be slow and pragmatic in standing up their internal cannabis banking programs. Some banks may forever avoid the cannabis industry due to the known pitfalls of an industry specific program, while others may simply mitigate the possible exposure to reputational risk.

Choose Wisely: Pitfalls for Lack of Compliance

Financial compliance is the responsibility and duty of the banks, but the real losers and result of non-compliance always fall on the cannabis operators. Regulatory action against an institution may result in the bank shutting down its cannabis program or may require them to complete a remediation of all their cannabis transactions for a certain period from its clients. At the end of the day, regardless of action, the cannabis operator is the one being punished. Operators either lose their bank account and have business massively disrupted, or they are asked to provide all the compliance docs for a historic period, which is a huge undertaking and operational distraction, ultimately impacting business and productivity. So, choose your banking partner wisely.

Summarizing Key Banking Requirements

In summary, banking in the cannabis industry will undoubtedly remain a high-risk industry, with or without legalization. Although banking opportunities may expand as US policies change, there will be continued compliance and regulatory requirements for the foreseeable future.

  • Onboarding and ongoing screening are critical
  • Evidence for every transaction is a significant portion of compliance and must not be dismissed
  • Evaluating activity with broader strokes is essential in mitigating against money laundering
  • Managing the staggered filing timelines and due dates for each client

Compliance is the most crucial factor in cannabis banking at this point. It cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. Cannabis operators must take an active role in evaluating the compliance programs of their financial providers. To open a bank account is one thing, but the consideration and effort that goes into keeping a bank account is the difference that will protect your business in the long run.

A Q&A with George Mancheril, Founder & CEO of Bespoke Financial

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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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?

George Mancheril, Founder & CEO of Bespoke Financial

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.

Jeeter was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with Bespoke

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.

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.

Navigating the Cannabis Industry in the Current Climate

By Serge Chistov
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All major industries took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in many states, cannabis dispensaries were labeled as essential, which has allowed the industry to continue with some alterations. The impact now will come from what innovations and improvements the industry can leverage going forward.

From changes to protocols and buyer behaviors to supply chain disruptions, there were many new hurdles for the industry in addition to the ones cannabis businesses already faced, such as funding. But the silver lining could be that businesses within the cannabis industry become less of a specialty and more ‘every day’ than ever before.

The effects of the pandemic on the cannabis industry

Overall, the industry has fared well, in part thanks to its distinction as an essential service in states where cannabis is legal. It’s possible states made this decision for the same reason that alcohol businesses were deemed essential in most places: hospitals are not equipped during pandemic times to take care of people who are being forced to detox or those suffering from anxiety because they don’t have access to their legal drug of choice.

In a multitude of ways, cannabis businesses have adapted to bring calm in a storm while at the same time making manufacturing adjustments to meet the CDC guidelines. For example, there is more attention placed on individually pre-packaged products for single use; something that is less sharable as an experience but eminently practical.

Another area that has shifted a little is in the limiting of the exchange and interaction between business owners and staff relative to the customers. It’s all in the aim of mitigating the risk of exposure, but it has changed the dynamic in many cannabis businesses. This is the new normal for the time being and the industry has adapted well.

Ultimately, retail cannabis businesses today are no different than the retail of candy, cigarettes or alcohol. Certainly, segments of the industry have still struggled. Lack of tourism and the curbside/take out circumstances at dispensaries took their toll. But without the opportunity to still conduct business in some capacity, 50-60% of all operators would have gone out of business. Plus, as many people use cannabis to offset medical symptoms, including pain management, there is a legitimate need for cannabis to be available. The pandemic has provided the opportunity for many who might not have tried it before to give it a chance to help them medicinally.

Behaviors have changed, including those of buyers

Driven by consumer interests, many dispensaries have adapted to provide curbside pickup options, delivery of online orders and more. That has meant that the customer also needs to be more knowledgeable about cannabis: the experienced consumer knows what they like and want and can make their choices at a distance. Someone who is new to cannabis use might find navigating the choices and options a little more difficult, without the help of experienced staff. The breadth of material online and the ability of some dispensaries to share content that helps the consumer to make choices, in the absence of walking around the dispensary, have been additional tools at the disposal of businesses.

That said, the cannabis industry today is not a vastly different one: it is adapting to the new rules and new reality. Whether this way of doing business—at a distance—is a temporary or permanent solution will be dependent upon what federal and state regulators dictate in the months ahead, but there is likely to be ongoing demand for being able to order online and keep social distance protocols in place.

An interesting example is the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) in Ontario, Canada. This is a government run shop that has retail as well as a robust online presence, with free delivery during the pandemic. This has facilitated an increase in new customers, which had already jumped, post legalization. People who might have felt uncomfortable going into a dispensary can still learn about cannabis online and order it, from the relative comfort and safety of their sofa.

Supply chain disruptions and the cannabis industry

The industry has long been focused on overseas suppliers. With the arrival of the pandemic and restrictions on obtaining products from other countries, supply chains have been disrupted for many cannabis businesses. That has forced many to shift their supply chains to more local manufacturers, in North and South America.

In the long run, this should have a positive impact for the industry, so that despite the short-term disruption to the supply chain, which is having an impact on the industry as a whole, there could be an upside for local producers, growers and manufacturers. It will take time to know how this will all play out.

Funding and other issues for the cannabis industry

For a new cannabis startup in these times, the key will be what it has always been for any business, just to a greater degree: due diligence. Companies that want to open a cannabis business, whether during the pandemic or not, need to evaluate the opportunity as one would any investment. It’s all about the numbers: data for the industry as a whole and specifically from competition. These days, that data is widely available and more and more consultants and investors have expertise in this industry. “Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before”

It’s vital to be extremely well versed, particularly for businesses that are relatively new in the industry, because the single biggest issue for many has and will continue to be funding and investment. The cannabis industry is no different than any other business, except for the fact that it is a specialty business. With that comes the need to look for funding among investors who have some knowledge or appreciation for the industry.

Some of the key concerns traditional investors will have include:

  • Regulatory differences from state to state: since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there can be an array of hurdles at state and local level that make cannabis businesses trickier to work with.
  • There are religious based/morality issues for some lenders in dealing with the industry. These aren’t dissimilar from issues with other industries such as adult entertainment and gaming. It’s also fair to point out that, morality aside, these industries have thrived in the last several decades.

So, while traditional banking institutions will often deal with the proceeds from the cannabis industry, including allowing bank accounts for these businesses, there is far less of a chance that they would invest in a cannabis business, for fear of risking their license. They can even go so far as to refuse to include income from a cannabis business in the determination of a loan application.

There are more unique lending or investing groups that either specialize in cannabis or are starting to open their books to specialize in cannabis. Overall, there is more interest in the industry than ever before, as it becomes normalized in American society: more participants and more insiders of the industries that are willing to invest in the right idea.

Will legalization be more likely in the future?

The fact that cannabis businesses and dispensaries have been deemed essential services during the pandemic, where they legally operate, has shed new light on the relevance of these businesses and the advantages of more widespread legalization.“Consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods”

In fact, the pandemic has normalized a lot of new behaviors, including the acceptable use of cannabis to help with stress and anxiety. People are, perhaps thanks to staying at home more, doing the legwork to understand how cannabis could be useful to them in managing their stress. The medicinal benefits of cannabis have long been researched and understood: consumers are coming into the fray to express their interest in it, which can only fuel the possibility of more widespread legalization.

Add to this the fact that the cannabis industry is a growth industry. There are companies and jobs that aren’t coming back, post-pandemic. There is an opportunity to grow the cannabis industry to the general benefit of many, both as business owners and employees. The revenue generated from taxation following legalization would also benefit many state coffers. Federal level legalization would be the panacea to eliminate the mixed message, state by state regulation that currently exists.

Opportunities for innovation, moving forward

As more and more people become interested in the industry, and as cannabis use is normalized within society through legalization, the opportunities for the industry can only expand.

For an industry that started on the simple concept of smoking cannabis, the advances have already been legion: edibles, nanotechnology-based formulations for effective, clean consumption and many more innovations.

In a world that increasingly sees smoking as a negative, for the obvious impact to lung health, there are so many opportunities to grow the industry to find consumption methods that are safe and still deliver the impact of the inhaled version.

Here again, consumers will help drive the innovations as they demand clean consumption methods. The technology is available to make this possible; it only takes innovation and education to find the best ways to move this industry forward.

As legalization expands—and particularly if it is dealt with at the federal level—the industry will be able to capitalize on existing infrastructure for manufacturing and distribution, allowing new businesses to grow, get funded and thrive in the new normal.