Marijuana Banking has grown quickly. Here’s a look at Who’s Who

Image

Power brokers - I spoke to half a dozen investment bankers about how their firms work in the cannabis space in terms of what they’re able to advise on — and what they’re not — and what trends they’re seeing in deal-making.

Let’s break it down bank by bank. 

Cowen

New York-based Cowen’s first cannabis-related transaction was the 2013 initial public offering of GW Pharmaceuticals on the Nasdaq. The firm in 2014 hired research analyst Vivien Azer, who co-founded the cannabis practice alongside banking Managing Director Gavin O’Reilly, a 19-year Cowen veteran.

Sitting within the bank’s consumer and retail investment banking coverage,  Cowen doesn’t work with US-based THC businesses to raise growth capital — but it has advised on most other types of transactions within state and federal legal confines, O’Reilly said. “We had the benefit of a huge head start to understand the landscape and how to choose the right companies and the right transactions to work on.”

On top of research, Cowen also has a Washington-based policy group that keeps tabs on federal laws as well as a separate analyst who studies state rules.

O’Reilly sees increasing consolidation in the industry as well as tobacco and alcohol players making more investments in the space. Technology that services cannabis companies is also interesting to watch. “It’s been hampered by a lack of capital access, but the industry’s been creative in structuring transactions where sellers take earn-outs and seller notes and obviously stocks,” O’Reilly said.

Houlihan Lokey

The Los Angeles-based boutique investment bank established a cannabis practice in late 2019 led by Senior Vice President Sam Scanlan, a father of two and an avid golfer. The bank has two dedicated bankers as well as reinforcement from its consumer, food and retail banking, capital markets and financial valuation advisory operations. Houlihan Lokey draws on experience in its bread-and-butter middle-market advisory business.

“There are a lot of the same attributes in terms of leaner management teams, organization and needing a lot more than just a banker,” Scanlan said. On top of deal advisory, the bank provides tax and accounting services, as well as due diligence and valuation consulting for clients that may not have in-house resources, he added.

Scanlan sees plenty of consolidation and is working on bringing in traditional, noncannabis investors. “Our belief is that a lot of those pockets of capital are the ones that are going to cross over and help fill the supply and demand gap on the capital side.”

Jefferies

On top of being the only female banker I profiled in this space, Jefferies Managing Director Ariella Tolkin also uniquely sits within the bank’s health-care practice instead of consumer. 

With a background in biotechnology transactions, she started covering cannabis in 2017 right before Canada legalized recreational usage. A year later, she made it her full-time job. 

Based in Miami, Tolkin covers cannabis companies globally, including those in Germany and Australia. “Unlike other banks, Jefferies is a truly global bank, so I have resources in many countries,” she said. In the US, the bank doesn’t provide any advisory or capital-markets services to directly plant-touching businesses, she said. 

She expects to see a lot of stock-for-stock M&A activity for consolidation in the next six to 18 months, followed by a wave of capital inflow from sector specialists such as mortgage investors that could look at cannabis mortgage REIT assets. 

Moelis

Started in 2018, Moelis’s cannabis business is led by Managing Director Grant Kassel. He spoke to me in August about his practice, which includes 15 bankers across all levels.

Kassel and the bank estimate that cannabis will be a $100 billion market annually. He sees the larger investment banks eventually moving into the space, but thinks it will take time.

The collaboration between the bank’s M&A and restructuring experts are part of what differentiates Moelis from other practices, he says. “We’re the leader in restructuring advisory in the cannabis sector, which is extra complicated given the lack of federal bankruptcy,” he said.

“From a growth vertical perspective, we’re spending a lot of time from a branded cannabis perspective because we think a consumer packaged goods-style coverage of this sector is where the industry will eventually go,” he added. The bank is also expanding internationally, with Europe being the first stop.

Perella Weinberg

Partner James Wappler and Executive Director Chris Boffi lead the cannabis advisory business at boutique investment firm Perella Weinberg, which in 2018 began advising in the Canadian market.

“We provide strategic advice on mergers, acquisitions, capital structure initiatives, restructuring situations and liability management,” Wappler said.

“We’re a strategic advisory firm, so we’re not a ‘bank’ in a traditional sense,” he added. “We don’t provide loans or capital directly into companies. We advise on those initiatives.”

Buyers’ objective in M&A has changed recently to creating cash flow and improving profitability, versus the prior goal of establishing bigger footprints, Wappler said.

With a background in regulated consumer products including alcohol and tobacco, Wappler also envisions the sector becoming more mainstream and relevant to consumer companies in the longer run.  

Want to follow more of Crystal’s content? Subscribe to the daily Bloomberg Deals newsletter here. 

Number of the week

  • 29%The percent of cannabis consumers who seek out cannabis with the goal of “relax and refresh” — by far the most common reason, ahead of stress relief, improved sleep, or easing pain, according to a recent report from New Frontier Data. 

Quote of the week

“Candidly, I don’t think SAFE is going to happen for at least another six to 12 months would be my best guess, if not longer,” said Houlihan’s Scanlan, referring to the US proposal that would regulate banking for the pot industry. “My rationale is that it’s not really a partisan issue and there’s not really alignment within each of the parties, and because of that I just think it’s going to take an awful lot longer that a lot of people think.”

What you need to know 

  • A health ministry panel in Japan, said the country — which has strict laws against the use of marijuana — should consider approving the import, manufacture and use of medicines derived from cannabis. 
  • Canopy Growth’s stock climbed after the Canadian cannabis producer said it’s reducing its retail business with deals to divest its Tweed and Tokyo Smoke stories. 
  • An appeals court affirmed a bong maker’s win in a suit alleging it violated California’s Proposition 65 by failing to warn consumers that its products expose them to marijuana smoke that could cause cancer or reproductive harm.
  • Irwin Naturals agreed to buy Keta Media, doing business as Ketamine Media, a platform for clinics offering ketamine-assisted therapy.
  • Rutgers Law School plans to launch a six-month certificate in cannabis law and business in January, the New Jersey school said. 
  • Dutchie, a cannabis industry payment services provider backed by high-powered investors, has hired John Kelleher as its general counsel. Kelleher comes to Dutchie after more than a decade as legal chief for HubSpot, a sales software company he joined in 2012. 
  • Cannabis initiatives on state ballots this year include recreational legalization in Missouri along with bills in Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Maryland, Bloomberg Government writes. 
  • Atai Life Sciences announced the start of its phase-1 trial for its MDMA derivative. 
Region: United States