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Flower-Side Chats Part 6: A Q&A with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

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 in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.

Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.

We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.

Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.

Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.

Green: Where is Gage currently operating?

Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.

Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?

Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.

Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?

Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.

Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?

Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.

Trulieve is a dominant market force in Florida

Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?

Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?

Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?

Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.

Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.

Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?

Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.

The Cookies flagship dispensary in Detroit, Michigan

We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.

On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.

Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?

Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.

Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?

Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.

A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.

Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.

It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.

Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?

Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?

Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..

Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!

Monaco: Thanks, Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 5: A Q&A with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

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 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.

Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

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.

Panacea Wellness in Middleborough, MA is one of MariMed’s adult use cannabis dispensaries

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!