Article by Phil Wong, High! Canada
Over the last little while, the Canadian Cannabis landscape has exploded overnight. Some expectations from the first year in cannabis sales were speculated at $22.6 billion a year. I think that estate is low given that the stock activity alone has been unheard of; aggressive take-over’s, mergers and acquisitions almost on a daily basis. If I had to guess, I would say those numbers should be doubled! Here is why, Canada is prey much still in its infancy stage, there are tons of things that the census probably did not account for, like supporting markets related to cannabis; growing, edibles, farming infrastructure and the fact that Canadians love their cannabis! And right now, that’s something a lot of them may not be admitting too! When the new Cannabis market started, there were only a handful of LP’s and few related services trying to get a jump start on the industry. One of those early services was legal services by Bennett Jones. Today, we are fortunate enough to sit with two of its early pioneers of the industry, Hugo Alves (President, Cannabis Wheaton) and Michael Lickver (Executive Vice-President, Cannabis Wheaton) and get their perspectives on looking back. How did you get your start with Bennett Jones?
Unfortunately, this part of the story is not very exciting. I went through the traditional hiring process that every law student goes through in Canada. The process is prey intense, after your first year of law school you submit your resume and application and if you are one of the lucky few you get an “on campus interview” that is commonly known as an OCI. It’s a bit like speed dang, you can do anywhere from 1 all the way to 20 interviews, in a one-day period from 9 to 5, 20 minutes each. So, I had my speed date with Bennett Jones back in probably 2009, and the date went well. You then move onto the next stage of dang and attend an “in-firm” interview. If the sparks are still flying, the law firm will offer you a “summer” position to come in as a student and that’s how I got my start. I’ll never forget that summer because it was the last me I shaved my beard aka the dark ages. After that summer, if the sparks are still flying they offer you an “Articling” potion, which I landed, and that happens after you’re finished law school. After 10 grueling months of Articling if you’re both still in love you come back as an “Associate” and then you’re a real lawyer. Although I went through the traditional method of securing a spot , if you read the papers they say I “rapped” my way into the job.
LOL! And is that true? Did you “rap” your way into that position?
Well I have rapped myself in and out of various predicaments but fortunately for the law firm they also looked at my technical skills before making the final decision. The timeline does get a bit blurry as I was deep into releasing a trilogy of music videos at the me. So who knows?
And that is where you first met Hugo and Chuck, is that correct?
Yes exactly, at two very different me periods though. When I started at Benne Jones, again I was a young buck over there, bright eyed and bushy tailed and I was trying to do some business development, which was a little unusual for a young lawyer. But I had a lot of friends who I did my MBA with, who were off doing a lot of cool things, and they trusted me to work on their deals, so I started bringing in deals at an early age. I met Hugo when I was a young student, probably around 2010, and just thought he was cool! And thought, “I should spend more me hanging around him, and learning from him”. If I was going to stick it out at the law firm, Hugo was an ideal role model and the type of Partner I wanted to be so I requested that when I came back as a full fledged Associate that he be my formal mentor. We spent a lot of me together and ended up building a close personal and professional relationship which I believe is fairly rare. Chuck and I met a few years later, when Hugo and I already had the cannabis practice off the ground. The first me we met Chuck was actually at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Tweed facility, up in Smith Falls. Eventually, he became a client and we built our relationship up from there.
When exactly did you guys think of entering the Cannabis industry?
It was around mid 2013, which was around the same me Hugo and I started working closely together. I was always cognizant of finding a healthy balance working with Hugo because he was my mentor and I was careful to balance working directly with him and seeking guidance while working with others. But, as me went on, Hugo and I blurred the lines, just because we work very well together. So we started working together more, and in mid 2013, we noticed that the marijuana regulations were going to be announced in April of 2014 and would, effectively in our opinion, create a commercial cannabis industry overnight, so we recognized the opportunity early. We got smart on the proposed regulations, and then we went out you know started hustling. Started meeting people, networking, wring articles, reading everything we could and just really getting smart on the industry. I have always been pro-cannabis and that was something Hugo and I had in common so aside from the professional drive to create a practice and build a business, it was exciting.
Our first ever client in the space, who is currently a Licensed Producer and one of our streaming partners was Beleave. They came to us and said they needed help with some financing. I had a personal relationship from a previous life with the CFO, and we took them through their first financing all the way through public listing and all the way to licensing. It was very, very exciting to get our start early and as the first movers and we just hustled hard to get our name out there.
It couldn’t have been all unicorns and coon candy? There must have been rough mes? Tells us about some of the challenges and stigma you overcame?
There is still stigma associated with the industry to this day so you can only image it was a 100 mes greater back in 2013. Even though Canada did have a medical program in place for a decade at the me the public really didn’t understand that system and neither did our colleagues. If you weren’t living it every day with a positive outlook, it was hard to see that this was going to be a real industry. Law is generally a conservative profession, so we were bringing a fairly taboo subject to the forefront. But the truth is and I would assume Hugo would validate this, we really didn’t ask for permission; we kind of just did it! We believed in the industry. We believed in our clients, and in the beginning, you were right, it was rocky, there were small companies and there were start-up companies, and not all of them could pay bills at all and or on me. But you really have to have faith and believe in entrepreneur behind the business and we did, we had previous experience doing that, because our previous life we were in technology space, and so working in tech, you are working with a lot of start-ups as well, and a lot of business risk. It’s a lot different than working for a Canadian bank, or a large oil and gas firm who is always going to be able to pay their bills. So definitely a rocky start.
Any scary moments where you thought you may have committed “career suicide”?
Hmmm, good question. I think the weight of career suicide fell squarely on Hugo’s shoulders so he shielded me from the blows. Although, I was a “career suicide” professional – at that point having released a slew of trap rap videos many years prior so this was a cake walk by comparison.
Lol! So I guess that’s a “No” right?
No, but mainly because I was too busy to focus on that. To be fair, every move you make as a young lawyer is important as you’re building up your technical skills. So, if you’re building all of your technical skills in a niche area that might not exist in a few years, definitely cause for concern. But, sometimes you just have to put all the chips in the middle for something you believe in and that’s what I did.
Hugo and I both truly believed that this industry was going to sophisticate very quickly and that all proved to be true, but it was definitely a risk!
And when was that “Aha!” moment, when you knew things were going to be okay?
That is a really good question that I have never really had to consider before. You know I don’t think there was any one single moment and I would be super interested in what Hugo said to this response. I think it just kind of happened over me, it’s one of those things where it was a slow build, and then you stop at one point, and look backwards and say “Wow we really accomplished a lot in a short period of me.”
If there was an “Aha” moment, maybe it was being featured in large publicaon like the Guardian, about two lawyers who blazing a trail through the cannabis field of law and building a pracce out of nowhere.
How was departing Bennett Jones? That must have been interesting?
It was interesting. I think it is always bittersweet when you leave a career behind, where you have people that you really care about, and you have built relationships with them over a number of years. You have a firm or organization that has invested a lot of me and money into you and you also have a relationship with, always bittersweet for sure. We really took a leap of faith but I believed it was the right move. Aside from thinking it was the right move, I would follow Hugo into any war on this earth, I think he is a fantastic leader and he’s been a great mentor so leaving together made that decisions a lot easier for me. I felt extremely confident that we were going over as a team and force and that is a lot different than having to leave somewhere by yourself to start over all again. So I had my team with me, had our resources, and we were ready to file forward.
Nice! And how did you come up with the name Cannabis Wheaton?
Great question. It is a play on a mining company called “Silver Wheaton” (now Wheaton Precious Metals), and it’s really homage to them, because they created the streaming concept in the mining world. We liked what they did so we took pieces of it and as any great artist would do, built upon it and adapted a model that was not the same, but would work for the cannabis industry, with some of the same theories built in.
What do your parents think of your career choice?
They love it. My parents have always been insanely supportive of all of my endeavors. They were on the set of my music videos. Prey much anything I do, they are just excited to be a part of it and watch me grow. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I don’t have that cool story where your mom or you dad says “Are you crazy?” All though, I had a little bit of that for sure, my mom being a mom was nervous and worried, my dad same thing, but they trust me and trust my judgment, and so it was all support. In terms of being in the cannabis industry, my parents were teenagers in the 70’s, so they definitely can dig it.
Cannabis Wheaton is always in the news, just today you guys were on the news for your announcement of convertible debentures, and congratulations for Wheaton Income winning Start Up of the Year! And what’s next for Cannabis Wheaton for 2018?
Thank you! Very, very exciting times. I mean for a young company, we have done some prey awesome things in the past couple of months. What’s next for us is to keep our heads down, and to execute on all the deals we have signed up, to continue sourcing new deals and to do anything and everything that is a accretive to our streaming partners and the build out of our platform. Whether that is locking down supply, or locking down different unique and additional distribution platforms.
Well thanks for your me and we will see you in the interview