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Cannabis M&A: Practice Pointers and Pitfalls When Buying or Selling a Cannabis Business

By Soren Lindstrom
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The Stage is Set

According to the Marijuana Policy Group, the U.S. cannabis industry is expected to reach more than $13 billion in sales by 2020 and create more jobs than the U.S. manufacturing industry. According to Viridian Capital’s Cannabis Deal Tracker, there were close to 100 M&A transactions in the U.S. cannabis industry in 2016 and approximately $1.2 billion was raised in equity and debt. As the cannabis industry has grown more mature and businesses begin to have more capital available, the M&A activity within the industry is poised to grow significantly over the next years to assist businesses gain necessary scale and take advantage of synergies and diversification.

The Obvious Wrinkle

U.S federal law has prohibited the manufacture and distribution of cannabis since 1935. The U.S. regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug (i.e., drugs determined to have a high potential for abuse with no currently accepted medical use and a lack of accepted safety regarding their use). Yet, more than 25 states have by now legalized cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes and, as a result, there is a clear conflict between such state laws and existing federal law. To possibly help bridge that conflict, the U.S. Attorney General’s office in 2013 issued guidance directing the federal government not to intervene with state cannabis laws except in specific, limited circumstances, but, contrarily, the DEA has shown no desire to re-classify cannabis. To add to the confusion, President Trump and the new U.S. Attorney General have provided mixed statements and signals about their positions.

All of this means that it continues to be risky to acquire cannabis businesses. The requirements to legally grow, distribute, prescribe, and use cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes vary widely by country, state, and local jurisdiction, making it tricky to determine whether such businesses can be legally combined, in particular, across state lines.

Pick the Right Team of Advisors

When preparing to sell or buy a cannabis business, it is important to pick the right team of advisors. Your regular legal counsel, accounting firm or CPA may not be the right advisors for a cannabis M&A transaction. Choose a legal counsel that not only has experience with cannabis laws and regulations, but also has cannabis M&A experience and can offer expert advice on areas like IP, employment, tax matters, etc. Similarly, verify that your accounting firm or CPA has real experience with financial and quality of earnings analysis and due diligence.

Conduct Gating Due Diligence Up Front

In any contemplated M&A transaction, it is wise to prioritize your due diligence investigations. There will always be some more prominent risks and business objectives in a particular industry or with respect to a specific target business. It will be more cost and time effective if those specific risks and business objectives are prioritized early in the due diligence process. These can dictate whether you even want to pursue the target further before you dig into a deeper and broader due diligence investigation. Conducting gating due diligence up front is even more important in an industry like cannabis that contain complex and thorny regulatory hurdles.

So, before you spend money and time on a broader legal, business and financial due diligence investigation, have your legal counsel analyze and confirm that the potential transaction is feasible from a regulatory perspective. This will include whether it is possible to obtain or transfer necessary local and/or state licenses and whether a combination or sale can occur across state lines if necessary. Early on in the process, It is also advisable to request that the target business complete a legal compliance questionnaire or discuss with the target its regulatory compliance program, policies and training. Such up front due diligence will either clear a path to negotiations and broader confirmatory due diligence or flush out “red flags” that may kill a possible deal or require the buyer to investigate further before proceeding.

Important Terms and Pitfalls in the M&A Agreement

Generally, a sale or purchase agreement for a cannabis business does not appear to vary much from a similar agreement in any other industry. However, the complex environment and the premature nature of the industry impacts certain deal terms and processes in different ways from most other developed industries.

Here are few examples to keep in mind when preparing and negotiating a sale or purchase agreement:

  • Third Party and Governmental Consents: Buyer’s legal due diligence must focus on the consents that may be required from seller’s suppliers, customers, landlords, licensors or other third parties under relevant contracts. Additionally, the due diligence should focus on consents and approvals required by local and state regulators as a result of the sale. The M&A agreement should contain solid seller representations and warranties about all such consents and approvals and any such material consents and approvals should, from a buyer’s perspective, be a condition precedent to closing of the transaction.
  • Legal Compliance: A buyer should not agree to a boilerplate seller representation about the target’s compliance with laws. Be specific and tailor seller’s legal compliance representation to relevant state and local cannabis laws, regulations and ordinances. From a seller perspective, be careful and thoughtful about any appropriate exceptions (including the federal prohibition) to be disclosed to buyer in the disclosure schedules underlying the sale or purchase agreement.
  • Financial statements: The cannabis industry is very fragmented and consists of many small businesses. Many of these small businesses do not have financial statements prepared in accordance with GAAP and may consist of only management prepared financials. In that scenario, a buyer should have its financial advisor do an analysis of the financials available and ask seller to provide a representation and warranty about the accuracy and good faith preparation of the provided financials.
  • Escrow: Typically, a buyer will request some part of the purchase price be placed with an independent financial institution for a period of time post-closing as a source of recovery for losses as a result of breaches by seller of any of the representations and warranties in the definitive sale or purchase agreement. Due to the federal cannabis and banking regulations, many of the larger commercial banks will not provide financial services to cannabis businesses, in particular if the business touches the plant. The parties must therefore consider alternatives, including local financial institutions with more relaxed compliance requirements or perhaps place the escrow in a trust account of a law firm or other independent party.
  • Working Capital Dispute Procedures: Similar to the escrow, larger accounting firms generally do not provide services to cannabis businesses. Due to the rapid evolution of cannabis related regulations, if the terms of the transaction include provisions for a post-closing working capital/purchase price adjustment and related dispute procedures, it is advisable to not name an arbiter in the agreement. Instead, parties should agree to mutually select the arbiter if and when a dispute should arise.
  • Indemnification: Because of the tricky legal environment of the cannabis industry, it may be prudent for a buyer to request, at the very least, that certain parts of seller’s legal compliance representation and warranty not be subject to the “regular” caps, deductibles and other indemnification limitations. Also, if a buyer has unearthed a significant issue in its due diligence investigation, it should consider asking seller for a special indemnity for such issue that would be indemnifiable regardless of buyer’s knowledge of the issue and not be subject to the general indemnification limitations.
  • R&W Insurance: If there’s a lot of competition for the purchase of a target, particularly in a bidding process, it is now common for buyer to offer to purchase a representation and warranty insurance policy (“R&W Insurance”) to possibly gain an advantage by limiting the seller’s post-closing indemnification exposure. The good news is that many of the R&W Insurance carriers do offer such insurance in connection with the sale and purchase of cannabis businesses. However, typically, R&W Insurance cannot be obtained for insured amounts of less than $5 million. Experienced M&A counsel can advise of the advantages and disadvantages of R&W Insurance and assist in the negotiation of the related terms.

The above are just some examples of what to expect in a cannabis M&A transaction. Every M&A transaction will have its unique issues that will need to be appropriately reflected in the sale or purchase agreements and good M&A practices will continue to evolve with the industry. If you are an owner of a successful cannabis business, buckle your seat belt and be prepared for an exciting ride as the industry gets closer to significant consolidation.

Soapbox

When the Company’s Revenue Drops, Who’s to Blame?

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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The ultimate goal of any business is to produce and generate revenue. Now, when the company’s revenues drop, who’s fault is it? This question, though silent, is in the minds of everyone in an organization, especially when things start to become difficult.

Working as a consultant in productivity with different industries around the world, I have come to realize that question is not openly discussed, but everyone wants to know the answer. To answer it, we will explore the most common areas of opportunity related to this problem.

When we talk about productivity, we are talking about final tangible results, because of the production process and the effort made by each one; when speaking of income, we are talking about the difference between the purchase price and the cost of entering the market. Seeing these definitions, we might conclude that the increase in income is directly related to the increase in productivity.

On the other hand, we must not lose perspective that the increase in productivity is also directly related to the decrease of losses.

First, we have to put into perspective the goals and objectives that a business or organization may have. Many companies go on believing that everyone is clear about the goals and organizational objectives and what is expected in each one of those roles that compose the organization. The reality is that, if we do not know where we are going, the chances of reaching the goal decrease.

When organization’s objectives are properly communicated, and documented, in such a way that the evaluation of the performance is directly linked to the expected results, the chances of success increase substantially.

On many occasions, I have heard phrases such as: “we work hard, we spend many hours, all sacrifice ourselves… we should be more successful”. The question then is: what are we encouraging, efforts or results?

It is hard for organizations to translate or differentiate between organizational goals and individual objectives (expected results) for each of those roles in the company. We all agree that we want to be the first in sales, the best in service and produce the highest quality, but how is that done?

To be the first in sales, what do I have to do as a seller? Get three customers in a three-month period? As secretary, process the orders in the first three days of receiving them? As a carrier, suggest three ideas be more useful in daily deliveries? How does that translate into individual performance?

We focus too much on telling people what they must do, but we forget to be clear on what we expect them to achieve. Hence, the effort versus result dissonance. The success of an organization is the collective behavior that arises from the conduct of individuals. If we align people, we align the organization.

Other elements that we must ponder, and that are directly related to productivity, are: how much of what we do holds value? How much of what we do does not have value? Moreover, how much of what we do, though it has great value, shall be performed by the requirements of law or regulation?

An analysis of productivity is critical, particularly in a time when we want to do more with less. Lately, an area of great success for many organizations is to streamline processes to make them more simple, efficient and with less risk of error. Human errors generated many losses. Defects, the re-process, the handling of complaints and lawsuits are costing companies money equivalent to the salary of 7,200 employees every day (according to statistics in the United States).

Human errors can be avoided. The idea that to err is human has led us to ignore this problem. We think that we can do nothing and lose an infinite number of opportunities for improvement that can help us to increase our income, reducing losses.

Only 16% of organizations measure the cost of human error. The remaining 84% do not measure it and are paying a high price without knowing it. In Puerto Rico, there are no statistics that could shed light on how many local companies lose because of human error, but it is very likely that the numbers are alarming. Human error can be reduced by 60% in less than a year when an intervention is done on systems. Approximately 95% of human errors are due to the design of the company’s systems, and they can be the simplest errors even in the most complex processes.

Today, we have more information, and we know that errors are symptoms of deeper problems in the processes created by the organizations. People play a crucial role regarding how robust methods are, but, we must not lose perspective that human beings operate according to the policies, procedures, and instructions which the same organization designs. Then, if people work according to the designs of the organization, is it not easier to modify designs than eliminating people?

So, who’s fault? Organizations are responsible for providing clear guidance to individuals in the right direction, and individuals have the responsibility of translating their efforts into results. Both have to work with the same objective in mind, and both employers and employees should communicate openly about these objectives. Only by working in partnership will achieve success. Forget who is to blame and focus on the processes and goals that help us be successful.

Soapbox

Best Practices for Submitting a Winning Application

By Leif Olsen
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Even though half of U.S. states and the District of Colombia now permit the possession of medical or recreational cannabis, state regulatory bodies differ greatly in their approaches to managing our industry. In Washington, anyone over the age of 21 can legally possess one ounce of usable cannabis and/or seven grams of concentrate. In Minnesota, patients are only allowed to purchase non-smokable cannabis in pill, liquid or oil form.

Given these substantial differences, it is no surprise that the application process to open a dispensary or cultivation facility also varies from state to state. The question I am most often asked (and catch myself mulling over late at night) is what can applicants do to ensure their success, regardless of where they are applying?

Recently we helped a client secure one of the first 15 licenses issued to grow medical cannabis in Maryland. The Maryland application process was particularly unique because most of the applicants had political or law-enforcement ties, or were connected to successful out-of-state growers. That experience, along with our work in places like Arizona, Colorado and Florida, has shown me the importance of teamwork, diversity and security in developing a winning application.

So here are my suggestions for ensuring a successful submission, regardless of which state you are operating in:

  1. Build the Right Team. My dad likes to say, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I think the same is true about creating the team for your application. Do not assume one or two people will be able to fill all of the required roles. You will need experts in a range of different areas including medicine, pharmacology, capital investment, cultivation, real estate, security and law.
  2. Focus on Diversity. I think one of the reasons we have been successful in helping clients secure applications (we are six for six, in six different states) is our commitment to gender, racial and even geographic diversity. For example, we recently helped a client secure a license in an economically underdeveloped area. I think our choice to headquarter the new business outside of the metropolitan corridor was at least partially responsible for our success.
  3. The Devil is in the Details. According to ArcView Market Research, the cannabis industry is expected to be worth $23 billion by 2020. If you want to be one of the organizations selected by your state to sell cannabis, you need to have your act together. Most applications ask incredibly detailed questions. Therefore it is essential that you answer them thoroughly and accurately. All answers should be in compliance with your state’s regulations.
  4. Put Safety First. You will need a comprehensive plan that takes all aspects of security into account. This includes everything from hiring security guards to purchasing cameras, and implementing internal anti-theft procedures. Regardless of the size of your operation, safety should be a primary consideration.
  5. Secure Funding. Successful cannabis businesses require capital. It’s important to be realistic about the amount of money you will need to have on hand. Application costs typically range from $500,000 to $1 million. This will cover things like hiring an architect or leasing land. Ideally, your organization will have another $5 to $10 million or more available to start your project once you’ve been approved so that you can quickly become operational.
  6. Connect With Your Community. It is essential to consider the impact of your business on the community. Being a good corporate citizen means being transparent and engaging in a two-way dialogue with neighbors, government officials and patients. I strongly recommend that my clients develop a comprehensive community outreach plan that designates which organizations they plan to work with, (hospitals or universities, for example) and what the nature of those partnerships will be.