Corporate Canada warms to marijuana industry

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Courtesy of Globe and Mail

Snappy business suits and crisp white lab coats aren’t what immediately pop to mind when one thinks of marijuana. But as high-flying professionals decamp from established industries for the promise of a Canadian green rush, jeans and T-shirts may be on the way out as the official workplace attire of the cannabis industry.

Over the past year or two, lawyers, scientists, marketing professionals and the denizens of C-Suite Canada have been moving into the industry, which is hungry for talent and filled with expectations of profit. With medical marijuana legal and the country preparing for recreational legalization next summer, there’s a need for a vast range of expertise.

“It’s one thing to hire a guy growing plants in his mom’s basement, and another thing to hire a guy with experience growing 20,000 square feet,” explained John Prentice, chief executive officer of the seed-to-sale software company Ample Organics Inc.

Take Canopy Growth Corp., for example, the first TSX-listed cannabis company to break $1-billion in valuation. Its top management team includes former executives at BlackBerry Ltd., Pfizer Canada Inc., the Molson Coors Brewing Co., Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. and Vodafone Group PLC.

“This is an insanely competitive space with new competitors selling very similar products entering on a near weekly basis. The recipe for our success has been largely based on hiring great people with relevant experience to do the jobs,” Jordan Sinclair, Canopy’s director of communications, said in an e-mail.

Increasingly, cannabis companies are led by well-known figures from corporate Canada. To name just a few: Vic Neufeld, CEO of Aphria Inc., ran vitamin maker Jamieson Laboratories Ltd.; George Scorsis, CEO of Liberty Health Sciences Inc., was previously general manager of Red Bull Canada; and Barry Fishman, CEO of ABcann Global Corp., was formerly CEO of the pharmaceutical company Teva Canada Ltd.

Their interest is hardly surprising, as it has become clear just how much money there is to be made. A 2016 study by Deloitte estimated that “marijuana sales alone could be as high as $8.7-billion a year, similar to sales generated by wine,” and the industry more broadly could see close to $23-billion in annual economic activity.

In an attempt to earn a competitive edge, LIFT.co, a cannabis media and technology company, has gone on its own hiring spree, said CEO Matei Olaru. Mr. Olaru recently tapped Craig Hudson, who used to lead Indigo Books & Music Inc.’s digital division, as chief operating officer. Mirella-Marie Katarina Radman also joined the company this year as chief communications officer after working as senior marketing manager for The Globe and Mail.

“Our whole business exists to legitimize the industry, so having people like this come on board and subscribe to that vision is definitely encouraging and I think a sign of the times,” said Mr. Olaru.

It’s not just at the C-Suite level that cannabis companies have been picking up people from other industries. Mr. Prentice, of Ample Organics, cited demand for every type of role, from agriculture experts to computer programmers, to labourers. “Everything that every other industry has, we’re still building,” he said.

When Alison McMahon started her human-resources consultancy Cannabis At Work two years ago, the focus was on helping non-cannabis industry organizations manage marijuana legalization. This past spring she launched a staffing division, and she now spends much of her time matching professionals with cannabis companies.

“I had always had the staffing component in the back of my mind, but two years ago the market wasn’t mature enough to need a staffing agency,” said Ms. McMahon.

The most in-demand positions at the moment are in quality assurance, she said, “given that cannabis production is such a highly regulated industry.” Quality assurance people could come from food and beer industries, but also from traditional manufacturers, such as auto makers. “We’re also hiring positions like chemical engineers, process scientists, mechanical engineers. And we’re definitely hiring on the cultivation side, so that could be like a head grower position,” she said.

The most likely expertise gap will be on the retailing and brand management side of the business, she said.

“There’s only a select group of people at this point, who were early entrants to the cannabis sector and who have that cannabis-specific knowledge. But I think in a lot of cases, there is plenty of opportunity to take a solid skill set and apply it to the cannabis sector,” she said. Where holes in the labour market do remain, these could potentially be filled by graduates from several new cannabis-centered postsecondary programs, one at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia and one at Niagara College in Ontario.

Over the past two years, Ms. McMahon said she has seen professionals become increasingly comfortable with the thought of working in the cannabis business. There are, however, still the occasional humorous moments when hiring, she said.

“There’s not a lot of interviews that people have been in where it’s like, ‘Well tell me about your interest in cannabis, tell me about your experience with cannabis,’ so we still end up having to pull that out of people a little bit.”

EDITOR’S NOTE The first name of Alison McMahon of the human-resources consultancy Cannabis At Work was misspelled as Allison in earlier versions of this story.

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