May 6, 2020—Listen to special guest Tyler Stuart, Managing Director and Co-founder of Green Acre Capital, a leading cannabis private equity investment firm.
In this podcast we discuss:
- Green Acre’s approach to cannabis investing and what part of the value chain they find most compelling
- Differences between private and public pot stock valuations
- Current turmoil in the public equity space and what may happen to many cannabis stocks
- Cannabis beverages and the future of cannabis consumption
Welcome investors to the Absolute Return Podcast. Your source for stock market analysis, global macro musings and hedge fund investment strategies. Your hosts Julian Klymochko and Michael Kesslering aim to bring you the knowledge and analysis you need to become a more intelligent and wealthier investor. This episode is brought to you by Accelerate Financial Technologies. Accelerate because performance matters. Find out more at www.Accelerateshares.Com.
Julian Klymochko: All right. We are live with Tyler Stewart, founder and managing director of Green Acre Capital, which is a leading cannabis private equity investment firm. Welcome to the Absolute Return Podcast, Tyler. How are you doing today?
Tyler Stuart: Good. Thank you for having me.
Julian Klymochko: Yeah. Yeah. Glad to have you on the podcast. To start out, why don’t we just get a bit about your background? Tell listeners how you got into the cannabis investing space.
Tyler Stuart: Sure. Yeah, so I come from the investment banking side of the business. Most of my career was spent on what we call the sell side in different roles. Most of it with a boutique energy investment bank here in Calgary called First Energy, and I wrapped up that part of my career in 2015- 2016. Was looking for a bit of a change. I wanted to move on to what we call the buy side of the business, whether it be private equity or venture capital and at that time, there was a lot of discussion around cannabis becoming legal as Trudeau got into power. I thought you know what. Here, could be a potentially interesting opportunity. I did not think a lot of people were talking about. I think there was enough that made it interesting, but not too many. That made it crowded at that time. I spent most of 2016 just doing my homework and research on the industry, mostly in the U.S., because if you recall, there was already some states that had legalized it back in 2014. We can already see how that recreational market was unfolding. I was on a plane and a lot of different directions going to conferences and trade shows and meeting with different companies and just trying to get the knowledge base up and form a thesis and figure out what the best opportunities would be for me at that time. I came together with a few partners, who are now my partners at Green Acre, and we launched our business, which is a venture capital fund, in January of 2017 after spending close to a year studying the market and figuring out what that thesis might look like.
Julian Klymochko: So you have followed the cannabis industry for a long time now, and you have been investing for a number of years. When you set up Green Acre, what was your initial approach to cannabis investing and how has that evolved over time?
Tyler Stuart: Yeah. You bet, so when we set it off, we thought, okay, you know, there is already a little bit of hype in some of these names. You know, this is going into mid to late 2016 and stocks had been moving already. The early movers have been at least, and so we thought, okay, well, we probably don’t need to go set up a hedge fund and invest in publicly traded companies with real high volatility. We thought we could add more value dicking around in the corners and looking at sectors that were under followed. So our initial thesis in ’16-’17 was we were going to be early stage venture capital investors in ancillary candidates businesses. The way we looked at Ancillary was anything that is not a pure play grower. At the time, all of our licensed producers were cultivators and they were just providing flower and some oil to the medical and then soon to be recreational market. We thought, okay, there is a whole other segment or multiple segments of infrastructure type investments that we could make, and we could we could find a lot of interesting deals. Most of the time we had a little bit more leverage to strike at our terms and some of these deals where the crowds weren’t investing in that. Some of our early investments that worked out well for us. One was the brand play called Tokyo Smoke.
Another was a testing lab called Anandia, and we still got the benefit of a robust public market on the exit of these businesses but we were not necessarily investing in those licensed producers. That was really the premise. Initially, it was to be active investors, to take a venture capital or private equity type of approach where we were making anywhere up to like five to seven year investment, being active on the board or in strategic advisory role. In some cases, we even started businesses where we saw a gap in the market. We saw something that was working well and established the U.S. states, but we did not see it up here and nor did we see people launching those businesses. We have actually created our own businesses where we acted as interim CEO and then brought in staff and did most of the capital raising. A fairly, fairly active approach to the companies that we are investing in. Generally would not invest in anything unless we have spent a lot of time around the people and seen the asset can tour the facilities and gotten comfort with the individuals and their facilities.
Julian Klymochko: Sounds like a lot of due diligence. Mike, go ahead.
Michael Kesslering: Yes, Tyler, when you look at your previous experience in an energy focused investment bank, where do you see some of the synergies between energy investing and cannabis investing now?
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, you know, I think the two industries are similar in that they are both capital-intensive industry. Then so, you know, the energy market is notorious for needing to raise a lot of funds and the bulk of cannabis businesses are in cultivation here in Canada and that is expensive. You know, it is expensive and time consuming to build out your facility without knowing you are even to be licensed. You need to raise tens of millions of dollars, and it would take you two to three years before you are even licensed. Then once you are up and running, you lose one crop, and that is a huge drain on your cash flow. You noticed that these cannabis companies, when the markets were open for them back in ‘17 and the first part of ‘18, they were raising crazy amounts of money. It might have been the most active industry for a period of time for these investment bankers raising money. I think, you know, the closest parallel to energy would be the amount of cash that is required or capital that is required to fund these operations. And, you know, it’s funny, you’d see a lot of the same investors in small cap energy just jumping around to other hot industries. We saw a lot of those same names playing the public cannabis companies in the early days as well. So high tolerance for risk obviously was what has required for those investors.
Julian Klymochko: Yeah, there was a lot of hot money and a lot of speculation a number of years ago as those businesses were getting formed. What I find fascinating is not only is their firm active in the investments you make, but it also indicated that involved in starting in launching cannabis businesses. Can you give some examples of companies who have helped incubate, can just be from a broad, general sense?
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, yeah, I think the best example is a project that I have been working on out on Vancouver Island for a couple years now. This plays into one of our theses, we always felt that the large licensed producer is going to be the Budweiser analogy. Then what we would need to see is a lot of craft plays. Craft beer became a real thing in the last couple of decades. We always saw that these large LP were set up with great entrepreneurs, brokers, bankers, or lawyers.
But they weren’t really set up with a view to grow the highest quality cannabis and create a brand that was really based on quality, which I used to the craft beer analogy, because a lot of people have gone away from that mass produced beer into a craft beer because they think it’s a better tasting product. We thought cannabis was going to play out like alcohol, say, or any other food or consumer packaged goods, and we did not see the attention to quality from the beginning with these PL.
You know, we had hundreds or more companies come through the boardroom and they would be describing their teams and their approach to business and there was no commentary on who that master grower would be, think of it, as you know. Would you launch a beer label without a brewmaster? Would you launch a wine label without a winemaker? There is no way it would. Because it all starts there. Right.
And so what we thought was going to happen is we’d have hundreds of these LP’s come out and they’d all be competing on size and scale and eventually a lot of them would have to fail because everyone kept Budweiser. What we did see was that attention to the craft and to the quality being led by people that already had decade’s worth of experience growing this plant. And a lot of those people were having problems getting into the market. They are not your typical entrepreneurs that do well in a highly regulated environment.
You know, the black market in cannabis, that attracts a lot of different characters. Now, the Catch-22 is that they’ve got a lot of the expertise and that takes a long time to develop. You know, it is not just flipping a switch and expecting that you can grow a great product overnight. To address that perceived gap, what we did is we said, okay, how can we work with a whole bunch of these black market growers that want to come to light and want to get a small facility license and then need help doing that. And so we started a company and essentially what it is, it’s like a growing collective, and so we’re helping through our consultants.
You get these growers on Vancouver Island. All licensed, and we are setting up another business, which is going to be a processor and essentially that processors where we’re going to try to create value and we’re going to have exclusive offtake arrangements with our army of growers on the island to take all that high quality flour and then get it to market. Whether it goes in jars, as dried flour or pre-roll’s or a certain type of extraction into a vape pen or an edible. We thought that was a way to play the craft market at scale, because I think that, you know, there is two ways to win.
You could win by size and economies of scale and you can beat that Budweiser or you can be that great craft brand, but you just need to still be able to scale that craft brand. This was our solution, so we owned 70 percent of the business. I still act as CEO, we are getting licensed and getting built out, and then we will eventually pass it over to full time staff to run.
Julian Klymochko: Now, there’s a lot of different areas in the cannabis value chain, many of which you’ve already mentioned, whether it be licensed producers, retail, processing, distribution or perhaps even ancillary businesses such as software and things of that nature. Now, as a firm, do you tend to diversify, across the value chain? Or do you find certain areas more compelling than others? At this moment.
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, within the portfolio, we have two funds now and within each fund, we have tried to diversify into multiple segments of the value chain. We do have exposure, despite what I had said about the LP’s; we still do have some cultivation exposure in Canada as well as the U.S. We’ve got a lot of retail exposure, particularly given our last deal was a fairly large deal into a public retailer up here in Canada. We are pretty heavy and fond too on retail. We feel like there is a disconnect right now and that the market is assigning a disproportionate amount of the value to the growers in Canada, and when we look at the U.S. market, for example, these MSO are vertically integrated so they could grow, distribute, process, manufacture and retail. You have more assigned value to each side of or each part of their operation. We did not see that in retail. We saw these things trading at point five to point six times sales, which is extremely low. When we look at the U.S., it was more like one to two times and we did not see the pub coast getting the credit for the amount of revenues that they’re generating now. Retail to us looks really good right now, and so we’ve built out a really strong retail portfolio. We have a pure play operators in DC, in Alberta and Saskatchewan and Ontario. Then we have just made a large deal and one that has probably the largest footprint in the country that once called Fire & Flower. We are also kind of circling back on some of these distressed LP’s. Some of these might start to look good if they are in the right neighbourhood. If we can get the right operating team in there. We just need to figure out what our secret sauce is and why we can do this better versus others that have kind of failed. We starting to have more discussions internally, at least about some distressed pub codes or distressed LP’s. We still like brands, we think brands win and almost every other consumer segment out there, whether it be alcohol, whether it be food, whether it be cars, clothing, brands, win. Our first investment in Tokyo Smoke taught us that.
We are still looking to build out great brands or support great brands. I talked about the craft market. I still think it is under represented, so we want to have good exposure there. The other large question that we are asking right now is what happens if the U.S. or when the U.S. decides to federally legalize cannabis?
In times like this, with COVID and a lot of jobs lost and contraction in economies, I think governments will be looking closer at all sources of revenue. It is natural to think that cannabis has a better chance of going federally legal in the U.S. post COVID. That is one of the internal discussions now as well as how do we capture value in that scenario where all eyes are on the U.S. legalizing.
Julian Klymochko: This market is developing so quickly, and you guys have an interesting viewpoint because you largely focus on the private markets. However, you do delve into the public market as well on occasion. How do you see the differences in these various markets, private versus public? And are you seeing any major differences in valuations or opportunity set?
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, you know, it is funny. Usually you always see at a discount on the private companies, you know, they trade at a discount to the public for a reason. You look at your public market comps and then you say, okay, I am a private. What is my discount? Is it 10, is it 20, is it 30 percent? And, you know, the whole Canada sector started pulling back in fall of 18 when we legalized. Right around October of I think was October 18 we legalized the market. You could just see the market rollover. It was kind of a buy the rumour sell the news event. And so cannabis really has had a year and a half to adjust.
And so we really went through our pain with the public market and then the corresponding private market pullback after. There is always a lag where, you know, privates don’t pull back immediately like a public would, but eventually they do and so we saw that. When the rest of the market really took a hit and mid-March. It was not quite as bad for cannabis because we had already been off, you know, maybe 50 to 75 percent and in certain names.
This recent sell off. We have not really seen more contraction in multiples. I think it is too early to see that, but what we have seen in both public and private markets is as a lack of capital. Whether you are a public or a private, you generally need money because it is a capital-intensive industry, and the capital markets generally are not open right now. The best operators will get money but 80 to 90 percent of them won’t. That is similar, I think, in both markets, and what I have been encouraging a lot of our investors to adopt is, really, survive and thrive mentality. You know, first you got to get through COVID. Then depending on the market, you are in, the different challenges, whether it be regulatory or over taxation or proliferation of the black market, we need to get through all these challenges.
And if you’re still standing in 6-12 or 18 months, then you have an exponentially better chance of being one of those long term winners. Being one of those Budweiser at the end of the day. Whether our companies are in the public or the private space we are telling them the same thing, you know, get your costs down. We are in uncertain times. Make sure you navigate these choppy waters and come out on the other side of it with a chance to gain market share and be a longer-term winner.
Michael Kesslering: So, Tyler, one thing that you had mentioned was the access to capital being an issue both in public and private markets as kind of an effect of that. Have you seen your investment horizon in terms of your portfolio companies? Have you seen that increase where, you know, in a company that perhaps you would be looking to IPO or sell to a strategic acquire in three years perhaps that is maybe being moved out to five years or longer? Or are you seeing any effects in that?
Tyler Stuart: Absolutely. I would say, you know, we were lucky with our timing on the first fund having launched that and in early 17 in January of 17, and we were making investments by March ‘17, and we had already had some exits within a year. Surfing summer 18, we had already had to exits out of the first fund and that was because we had really robust public markets and some of our ancillary businesses were getting sold into these LP’s. As soon as the market started cooling in late ‘18, that natural exit strategy for us changed a lot. LP’s were not throwing silly money around on M&A because they could not accept the fact of the markets to the same extent. Furthermore, there was a few really bad deals at the top of the market. I think everyone just kind of got scared overpaying for assets. That has definitely affected our exit on certain private. You know, we had multiple funds, one end fund, two companies that were in late stage discussions on exit, and given the market just pulled back, those deals never happened and they are essentially off the table right now. We were also lucky that we still have a lot of life left on both funds. They are both set up as 5 to 10 year funds. We think we can take these things up to 10 years if we still have position that need time. We are not come and do on those until 28-29, we’ve got a lot of time thankfully, with these companies to get exit.
Julian Klymochko: What I find fascinating is the dichotomy between the current market environments, which is pretty poor in terms of capital raising basically. Have seen very, very little in terms of equity financing, aside from the odd distress deal. You contrast that to a couple years ago, peak of the market where a ton of deals were getting done for seemingly pretty much every cannabis company. You had investment banks or underwriting nine figure deals. You had strategic investors, whether they be alcohol or tobacco companies, underwriting, you know, multi-billion dollar equity investments at what seemed like a very, very high valuations. What do you think ultimately happened that they paid too far out, or too high of a price? And are things cheap now or what do you think happened since a couple years ago? I remember specifically you are quite bearish on the license producers back at the peak of the market, and that turned out to be an absolutely great call. I am just wondering what you saw then and if things have changed now, given prices have come down pretty significantly and there could be some distressed opportunities.
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, I know, that is very accurate. There was a lot of fomo with investors in the market. You know, like the real returns I think were made and in 2015, 2016, 2017. Then I think the rest of the public kind of got onto that story and started taking these stocks higher in the last leg, and it was also fuelled by these large liquid companies or tobacco companies. Altria coming in and Constellation coming in, taken the equity prices even higher. Then the retail investor did not want to miss out on that ride. I always viewed like the cab driver or the Uber driver example, like, you know, when your cabbie or your Uber driver is talking about pot stock you probably shouldn’t sell.
Julian Klymochko: It is the shoes shine boys story in 1929. That is when you know when to get out of stocks when the shoeshine boy is talking about how much money they are making but as you indicated, cab drivers, Uber drivers as well, after they have gotten involved, there is really no one else to bit up the stocks. Right.
Tyler Stuart: That is right. We could see it was coming but the problem is, you know, like you could see it coming for what felt like years. Every time you sell, you were wrong. Because the market just went higher and higher and higher for years until, of course, it did not. Yeah, too much money, I think chasing the same stocks and, you know, through like a lot of bad actors too, you know, whether they were investors or whether they were brokers, bankers or entrepreneurs starting these companies. You know, a lot of companies had no right being public. You know, it was it was a pure promotion game and we are seeing the downside of that now with certain stocks off 90, 95 percent from their highs. You know the other thing that I think we convinced ourselves here in Canada was that we were going to be the dominant global player in cannabis because we were next to Uruguay. The first country to really roll out a proper recreational program.
And so our large public companies had access to capital and they were going to take that capital all around the globe and use our expertise to build out industries everywhere, whether it be Europe or South America or Africa or Asia and that never really happened. You know, we did not really get to a point where we made a dent in the global market. And, you know, all these other countries are turning on their own industries and looking locally for people to grow those.
I think that was probably, maybe a little bit misleading that we were going to capture most of the global market. And so I think that’s why that was the only way you could really explain the valuation for the peak is to say, okay, well, this is going to be a two hundred billion dollar global industry in Canada is going to capture a lot of it. Right.
Julian Klymochko: Yeah, what I find really interesting is you rewind back to the bull market days when you had basically dead mining shells who couldn’t raise any assets. Change their name to cannabis. The stock would go up five fold, and next thing you know, there is a 10 million dollar bad deal term sheet in front of them and off to the races and they can pay themselves again, but we all know how that kind of turned out. Most of them have kind of gotten back to the spent all the money and now a shell once again. What do you think is going to happen to all these kind of smaller cannabis producers that lack the perhaps professionalism, the assets and the brand to be successful? But mostly that lack capital. You know, say investors are stuck in one of these smaller names. What are they to do here? And what do you think’s going to happen?
Tyler Stuart: Yes, I don’t think there’s an easy way out of it. Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more bankruptcy filings, and, you know, we are already seeing some of our, publicly traded LP’s go into creditor protection. I think this is going to be an ongoing theme for the next couple of years until this is really cleaned out and then I think some of the mining shelves that these guys used. I think we are going to have some cannabis shelves to use.
Now, I don’t know if there’ll be any money in there for them to have any value. I remember when we when we were pitching our fund three, four years ago. You know, my prediction at the time was we were going to have 250 LP’s and then it would need to be whittled down to twenty five because I thought, okay, well how many large brewers or large tobacco companies are there. Not that many really. You know, we consolidate the industry and pick some winners to aggregate it. I think we ended up getting more like 300 LP’s, and I still think we are probably down to twenty-five large companies that can grow at scale and grow well and provide cannabis as an ingredient. If it is not just dried flowers, edible, concentrator topical, or something like that. Then you probably have hundreds of what we will call the micro growers or the micro producers, which will play into that crafting, and those companies probably don’t need to be public. It will be the larger public LP’s that need to buy these smaller micros just the way the beer and wine industry consolidates, because the larger groups tend not to be able to produce the same quality. It is the smaller, more nimble growers that will have stronger genetics and more exotic genetics, and they will have better growth techniques from their three decades of growing, and they’ll be putting the interesting products out there on the market and the large guys will be snapping them up to lock up those products. I think that is how it is going to roll out.
Julian Klymochko: There is a lot of scenarios that could play out in terms of the development of the industry. I am interested to hear how you think the cannabis industry will look like 10 years from now. Is it going to be similar to tobacco or it is highly consolidated with kind of, you know, two or three really dominant players? Or is it going to look more like the alcohol industry where you have a ton of different sort of small, crappy craft producers that are eating these large producers lunches?
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, I think the latter. You know, I think it will be a barbell industry, more like alcohol, where you have a few large ones and a lot of smaller, crafty guys and you’re going to have different brands and different companies for all the different products that are out there. People are calling this…we are in Cannabis 2.0 right now, 1.0 would have been when we launched in October of 2018, and all we had really was dried flower and some tinctures and gel caps and now we’ve got all the edibles, we’ve got the vape pen and the other forms of concentrate.
When you start breaking the market up all the cannabis products into 8 or 10 different categories. I think you’ve got multiple brands and companies that are going to have IP or expertise playing and in different categories, just like, you know, if we take beverage or something, you know, you’ve got got beer company, you’ve got wine companies, you’ve got Spirit, you’ve got this new ready to drink segment that’s showing a lot of growth. The cannabis will be similar. You know, you will have different companies playing in different areas and doing different things really good.
And I think that’s really what’s going to take the stigma away from cannabis. You know, once we have these products that look more normal on the shelves, I think that social consumption is going to be really important. You know, I know I am leaning on alcohol a lot here, but I think there is a lot of analogies to use. We know how acceptable it is to sit in a public setting, whether it be a bar, lounge or restaurant and drink alcohol, and in a lot of cases drink too much alcohol. And right now, cannabis is a little bit more secretive, and I think the 2.0 products help bring it out of the dark and bring it out of the alley, so to speak, and put it make it more normalized. Whether that is in the form of a beverage or in the form of food, something where you think you can sit and enjoy watching the Flames game while you are having a craft THC infused beer on top.
I think in 10 years that will be the norm. We will be used to that. We will be able to go into a restaurant or a pub, say, have a cannabis beer, that’s got three or five milligrams of THC and maybe we can even have two or three and be fairly coherent and then be able to walk home after, you know. I think that is the future, and that is how it becomes normalized. I just think beverages is a good way to do it because we are so accustomed to celebrating and socialising with beverages.
Julian Klymochko: Cannabis infused beverages certainly have received a lot of hype and there is a lot of high expectations behind this market segment. I have read some mixed reviews. I have heard there is some difficulty kind of mixing in the oil into drinkable format. I have not tasted it myself. What are your thoughts on these drinks? Are they there yet in terms of quality? And if not, do you think they will get there and crack this market such that it can expand to these lofty expectations?
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, it is a good question. I don’t think they’re there yet. You know the technology is improving. There is a lot of different technologies, mostly Nano emulsification right now, which, you know, helps with the water solubility of the THC, so that it gets mixed in properly so you can dose properly. You know, the other part of it is on set and duration. I think a lot of us have had bad experiences with edibles or you have heard of someone that has had a bad experience with an edible because you eat it or you drink it and you don’t feel anything. You double down on it, next thing you know, the first one coming in. The second one starts kicking in, you have gotten too much, and you are in a bad spot.
But you know that technology is getting better so that you can get a quicker onset. A lot of these can hit you in 20 to 30 minutes, which is becoming very close to what, a beer, bottle of wine, might hit you in. Then the duration of it is a lot shorter. You are not committed to this for four to six hours, but maybe one or two hours. I think that is really important. You know, I think a lot of the drinks are the beverages that hits the market initially. I am thinking more in the U.S. because they had a head start on us. There were some sort of a sugary concoction that, you know, resembled more of like an energy drink. To me, that is not really how you gain consumers. You put it in a format that they already like and that they are already comfortable with, whether that is like a sparkling water or some sort of like soda or a beer, you know, much better than some hibiscus lime sugar drinks.
I think the social consumption as well is big for beverages because I think right now cannabis is not very social because people don’t want to stand around in public and consume cannabis and you’re not really allowed to. I think that having these beverages in a public setting is also going to be really important to penetrating the market. Now, most of these large alcohol companies or beverage companies like Coke or Pepsi, they have come out with a view on cannabis and in a lot of cases they’ve made investments, so they believe it’s real. I think they are seeing their market decline, particularly the beer segment, and they are seeing cannabis beverages as a disruption for that. They want to be partnered with the right groups to get into those markets. I think we are still early on beverages but I am long term bullish on them.
Julian Klymochko: There we go we have our answer here and a ton of great insights. So thanks, Tyler. Before we wrap this podcast up, just wanted to give you a chance to let listeners know where they can learn more about you. Whether it be your website, social media, things of that nature.
Tyler Stuart: Yeah, I think the website is probably back, so that is greenacrecapital.ca so a lot of information on the team as well as some of the investments we have made. I will admit we are not as strong on social. I think the website’s probably the better place to go.
Tyler Stuart: All right. Well, thanks so much, Tyler. You guys can check them out at greenacrecapital.ca, see if you’d like to learn more but for now, I want to thank you for spending time with us on The Absolute Return Podcast, and we’ll chat with you soon. Cheers.
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