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Flower-Side Chats Part 9: A Q&A with Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

By Aaron Green
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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.

Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

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.

Sen. Schumer unveiling the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act

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!

Thut: Thanks Aaron.

How ERP Tech Helps Companies Manage Traceability & Process Control

By Scott Deakins
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Commercial real estate took a dive last year as companies began to work from home, but changing regulatory environments have opened doors to a new industry in need of property: cannabis. Growing rapidly at both the medical and adult use levels, cannabis businesses have been eager to move into vacant buildings, quickly buying up space as more states adjust their laws regarding cannabis.

Cannabis businesses cannot go at it blindly, however. Legal cannabis firms of all sizes – from the smallest startup to the biggest enterprise – will face regulatory challenges, traceability requirements, process control standards and, ultimately, the right technology to keep them moving forward in this promising industry.

Use data to keep track of plants, patients and regulations 

As a highly regulated industry, cannabis companies could be investigated at any time. Regulatory authorities may, at the very least, request proof that they are compliant with state restrictions. Cannabis enterprises will only be able to quickly and easily provide that proof if they have immediate access to accurate historical data. With that information, they can generate the necessary reports at a moment’s notice and maintain a reliable audit trail.

Cultivation is where the tracking process begins.

Historical data is also useful for both growers looking to evaluate why certain plants are more successful than others and for sellers looking to improve their customer experience. By tracking everything from mother plants to clones, growers can build a strong genetics profile and gain a powerful competitive edge. Historical data also aids sellers, who can use it to enhance their digital storefronts and keep track of customer information, shopping history and other details that could improve the e-commerce experience.

In addition to customer details, sellers must also keep track of patient information when selling in a medical-only environment. Prescriptions need to be carefully managed to ensure that patients only receive products that they have been approved to purchase and use.

Utilize process control to foster scalable and repeatable processes

Process control is another vital component that every cannabis grower, manufacturer, processor and distributor must possess. They need scalable and repeatable processes to prevent steps from being bypassed, ensuring that every finished product matches the same high-quality standards. If there are no stopgaps in place, steps could be missed if employees are rushing to meet a deadline or simply think that a particular test or check isn’t needed. Those kinds of mistakes can be hugely detrimental to any cannabis company and may waste product, diminish profits and turn off customers.

PlantTag
A plant tagged with a barcode and date for tracking

Similarly, visibility and control over inventory is a top priority for any business, but it reigns supreme in the cannabis space. Managers should always, at all times, know where the product is as it moves throughout the warehouse, or risk costs and waste. By directly tying scanners and barcodes to the right technology, organizations can ensure that all product is accounted for and easily located using real-time data.

Build a foundation for scalability 

Cannabis businesses don’t have the time to manually keep track of these aspects, and it wouldn’t even be possible as they grow and expand their operations. As they evolve, so too will the list of software requirements that are needed to operate smoothly, reliably and efficiently.

Cannabis processors have traditionally invested in seed-to-sale technology, relying on barcodes to track products throughout their lifecycle. While it is critical for cannabis enterprises to keep a strong level of control over lot tracking, this type of software is very limited. Cannabis firms would therefore be better served by an ERP solution with a single data source that provides centralized, real-time access to vital business information.

ERP technology can also help cannabis businesses better manage their production schedule, material requirements planning, accounting, purchasing, inventory management and document generation. The key, however, is to choose the right technology, avoiding ERP solutions that rely on customizations and bolt-ons, which will impede an organization’s ability to scale. Cannabis businesses should instead use technology that makes all of its features, enhancements and extensibility available to all customers, ensuring that every user has access to the same benefits.

Using Spreadsheets as Your ERP? Your Supply Chain Could Take a Hit

By Tom Brennan
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The cannabis supply chain – from seed to sale – is rife with intricacies including regulations and compliance. It requires coordination from multiple vendors responsible for different aspects of the end product. And as the industry either grows or retracts, use of data is vital to right-size supply to demand, enhance operational efficiencies and boost cost effectiveness.

However, there’s an industry-wide, data-management vulnerability among many cannabis companies, and it’s this: many are using spreadsheets in different aspects of data collection, management and analysis. This becomes a shaky foundation on which to manage processes, especially for applications like quality management. And to be fair, it’s not just this industry, but arguably cannabusinesses have more on the line in light of the ever-changing regulatory environment.

Many cannabis companies have some systems in place for order processing, inventory management, production management and the like, but they often still use spreadsheets to fill the intelligence gaps among various systems that don’t talk to one another. Managing supplier quality often falls into one those gaps.

The Problem with Spreadsheets

Most businesspeople understand spreadsheets. They know how to build and use them. Spreadsheets are incredibly powerful tools that are used to run more business processes than perhaps any other software product in the world. When a cannabis business first starts out, spreadsheets offer an affordable data management capability. But there comes a time when the business will need a more sophisticated, end-to-end enterprise solution.

Consider a recent incident in which the use of spreadsheets went terribly wrong. The British Government recently misplaced nearly 16,000 COVID-19 test results due to an Excel spreadsheet error. As a result, potentially infectious people may not have been notified by contact tracers that they should self-quarantine.

Companies can outgrow spreadsheets quickly as their business grows

In the ERP space, spreadsheets have been an issue since the 90’s, but this recent incident serves as a reminder that an overreliance on spreadsheets is still alive and kicking. One of the problems is that spreadsheets are often pushed beyond their intended use. Microsoft Excel has become the software Swiss Army Knife. There’s a development environment inside the software, and the system is often used as a database, not just as a calculation engine.

Companies outgrow spreadsheets when the volume of data fields increase, multiple users need access to the data, iron-clad audit trails are needed and when processes become more complex.

There’s also a breaking point. Cannabis companies may enter a dangerous zone of “too many spreadsheets,” when data security and integrity are at risk. Interestingly enough, this also happens in large companies, as they often have a mish-mash of on-premises legacy systems, acquired systems and new cloud-based systems – and spreadsheets are then used as the data consolidation tool for all these applications.

Applicability to the Cannabis Supply Chain

Visibility into the cannabis supply chain requires detailed track and trace capabilities across many suppliers. Anything left out means guesswork and more opportunities for mistakes. In other words, cobbled-together spreadsheets are the last thing cannabis businesses should rely on. Aggregating data into a spreadsheet from various systems and paper-based processes invites errors and can result in insights that are weeks or months out of date. Worse yet, there’s no drilldown capability when questions arise and no easy roll-up of information for decision-making.

Modern cloud ERP software can integrate an entire supply chain with ease

When supply chain quality must be sustained, the role of a common and integrated cloud platform for quality and ERP cannot be understated. Such a platform can capture sales, operations, inventory and purchasing data, and also integrate with production and quality control. This makes your quality processes and data integral to ERP and eliminates the data fragmentation, control and auditability issues associated with spreadsheets. In addition, companies can leverage operational insights from data reporting and analytics to find areas where they can enhance productivity, optimize inventory, improve planning accuracy and build better forecasts.

Moving to the Cloud

Modern cloud ERP provides this type of seamless platform. It’s easier to implement and does not consume as many IT resources as traditional on-premise ERP systems. Better yet, the more recent versions of cloud ERP are built using low-code technology which enables business users to customize screens, modify workflow processes, build their own apps and embed AI without needing expensive IT consultants or waiting for busy IT staff.

In other words, the flexibility that’s been the lure of spreadsheets is now available in cloud ERP, but the system utilizes proverbial governance guardrails that keep business users from swerving off the road and completely wrecking the system. For example, templates for apps and workflows are provided as a starting point. Business rules and “drag and drop” customization capabilities offer guided options, clearly defining what can and cannot be changed.Rootstock will be presenting during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference episode, Supply Chain Quality, on October 27. Click here to learn more

And as a result, quality steps aren’t skipped; audit trails remain intact and data is protected with rock-solid security permissions and data backups. And unlike spreadsheets, new ERP systems are designed for multiple users and remote access via mobile devices. In short, with the latest generation of ERP, companies can leverage the best of both worlds – an end-to-end cloud platform that provides data integration across an organization’s operation and the flexibility and ease-of-use of spreadsheets.

Supply Chain Case in Point

One customer we worked with previously coordinated its supply chain via email and Excel spreadsheets. It cut and pasted requisitions into individual supplier spreadsheets and emailed those out, and it kept a master spreadsheet to keep track of all supplier performance. Team members had to sift through spreadsheet columns and rows to find information they needed.

Today with a cloud platform, the company built an online community so processes could be automated and conducted via real-time connection and communications. Another immediate benefit was the customized supply chain dashboard. All relevant data across their entire supply chain was displayed in one place and in a user-friendly manner.

The dashboard showed production forecasts over a certain period of time. The company could detect whether the supply chain was on track or having issues with certain suppliers. It could see planned requisitions and monitor them until fulfillment was complete. It could also monitor the performance of various suppliers, whether they had on-time deliveries or not – and trace back items received. The company essentially has a snapshot of the overall health of its supply chain and all the underlying activity.

Let’s face it. 2020 has been a difficult year, but perhaps it’s the year that companies finally forego spreadsheets and enlist an industrial-strength cloud platform.