Best of Both Worlds

Executives from Kellogg’s, Molson Coors, Nike, Pfizer, Whole Foods Market, Wrigley and a slew of other companies with household names have migrated to jobs in marijuana, a trend likely to continue as cannabis legalization spreads and the stigma of MJ declines.

While it might be getting easier to hire talent from big mainstream companies, a growing number of executives caution others against looking exclusively for talent with experience at large corporations. Rather, look for people who have worked in cannabis and in the mainstream—ideally at startups.

That’s a relatively limited talent pool but one that is growing fast, thanks in part to the industry’s maturation and the growing number of erstwhile mainstream executives who also have cannabis experience—not to mention the recent wave of cannabis industry layoffs. Indeed, the pool of candidates who can offer the best of both worlds—mainstream and marijuana work experience—has never been bigger.

Several executives already are taking advantage of this development.

At Harborside, recent hires that fit the mold include:

  • Chief Financial Officer Tom DiGiovanni (hired in December), previously co-founder and chief financial officer at Canndescent, whose pre-cannabis resume includes leadership positions at the Newhouse Development Group, a real estate and business consulting firm in Santa Barbara, California; REC Solar, an energy company in San Luis Obispo, California; and BDA, a marketing firm in Woodinville, Washington.
  • Chief Retail Officer Lisah Poore (hired in October), previously senior vice president of Western Region sales at Dosist, whose pre-cannabis resume includes senior management posts at multinational cosmetics company Sephora as well as Starbucks.
  • Chief Marketing Officer Alexis Mora (hired in January), previously chief marketing officer at Bloom Farms, whose pre-cannabis resume includes senior marketing posts at the Good Solutions Group, a Pasadena, California, marketing firm, and the Access to Therapy Network, a mental health services company in Encino, California.

“We always look for people that have cannabis experience. And there are more candidates now that have that experience. They might’ve made the transition from a regular mainstream industry into cannabis a year or two years ago,” said Peter Bilodeau, interim CEO at Harborside. “We look outside the industry as well, but if you have the industry experience, that always gives you a leg up because there’re still many issues within the industry—banking, regulatory issues—and it’s good when somebody understands those issues.”

Bilodeau cited Mora as an example: “She already understood the products, the marketability of those products and has quickly launched some new programs,” he said.

Margot Micallef, CEO of Gaby’s, a cannabis-infused products company with headquarters in Calgary, Alberta, and Santa Monica, California, said hiring managers with big-company mindsets can backfire. She cited the example of an executive her company hired last year who had held senior posts at several large companies but still didn’t have what it took to be successful in cannabis.

“He failed miserably. What we came to realize after having him on for just about a year was that he was too mainstream. He was not startup-focused, and he was not open enough to the differences between CPG and cannabis. That was a real learning experience for us,” Micallef said. “We’re looking first and foremost in the cannabis world.”

She added: “It’s really hard to parachute in an executive that has no cannabis experience. … If you can find somebody that has the cannabis experience and also has mainstream experience, they’re a gem.”

And because the recent layoffs have injected more qualified candidates into the cannabis talent pool, Micallef is hiring more aggressively before the best talent gets snapped up.

“It’s an opportunity to upgrade in different positions when you had less of an opportunity to hire ideal candidates. Now we’re constantly scouting who’s out there and what can they do to upgrade the skill sets that we have in the company.”

Acting now is wise, said Liesl Bernard, CEO of CannabizTeam, an executive search firm headquartered in San Diego.

“With the layoffs, there is more talent in the marketplace, but I also feel like the demand for talent is going to increase. I really believe it’s a temporary dip with companies doing layoffs and restructuring,” she said.

If Gaby’s can’t find someone with cannabis experience for a post, they next seek out someone with startup experience rather than big-company experience.

Ed Schmults, CEO of Calyx Peak in Massachusetts and formerly CEO of FAO Schwarz toy company, agrees startup experience will help a cannabis company more than corporate experience at this stage of the industry.

“I’ve avoided the huge-company executives. If you’re working at a $1 billion company, you’ve got a team of people, you’re getting great data, you’re getting reports. It’s a different world in cannabis right now, where you probably don’t have a huge team of people. You’re probably tasked with building the reports and trying to scrub the data to make sure the data that you’re using is accurate,” Schmults said.

“I actually look for people who’ve worked in small companies, who’ve had to wear multiple hats often in the same day, who are comfortable getting their own data and can kind of take charge and get (things) done. That, to me, is the test. Certain mindsets, certain types of skills are good at small-company stages. Certain are good at medium (sized companies)—and by medium I’m talking $500 million to a couple of billion (dollars). And then certain people are really well-suited for big-company leadership. I look forward to hiring executives from multibillion-dollar companies when we get there, but right now I want someone who at least has some experience in a less-than $100 million business and who’s used to being able to be nimble and agile, who can make decisions.”

 

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