Seven US marijuana CEOs saw compensation top $4 million in 2021

Top executives at the largest publicly traded U.S. marijuana companies each received up to $2.6 million in salary and bonuses in fiscal 2021, with stock and option awards boosting total individual compensation to as much as $16 million, according to regulatory filings.

Seven CEOs at these multistate marijuana operators topped the $4 million mark in total compensation in 2021, compared with just one during the previous fiscal year.

As in 2020, Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers was the only woman leading one of the 15 top marijuana MSOs. White men led the rest.

Several marijuana MSO executives below the rank of CEO also drew multimillion-dollar compensation packages, including one at $14 million.

In 2021, the two highest compensated marijuana MSO executives were CEOs rewarded for taking their companies public: Illinois-based Verano Holdings and New York-based Ascend Wellness Holdings.

“There continues to be a high rate of executive turnover and M&A transactions in the industry,” noted Fred Whittlesey, a marijuana compensation expert and founder of the Compensation Venture Group near Seattle.

“Every time there is a hiring, firing or merger, numbers get distorted as executives receive severances, hiring bonuses, new-hire stock grants,” he wrote in an email to MJBizDaily.

Or, in the case of mergers, the buyer often pays a premium over current market price.

Columbia Care co-founder and longtime CEO Nicholas Vita had a total compensation package worth $4.1 million in 2021.

But he could emerge with more than $100 million in cash and stock following Cresco Labs’ pending acquisition of the New York-based multistate marijuana operator – a 16% premium at the time of the announcement.

The package includes a potential $12.2 million change-in-control benefit.

“It’s important to know the story behind the numbers as the industry continues to go through tumultuous times,” Whittlesey wrote.

Year-to-year differences

Executive compensation packages generally vary year to year because some companies provide stock or option awards to their top executives once every two years rather than annually.

For example, Cresco CEO Charlie Bachtell led the list of best-paid U.S. marijuana CEOs in 2020 with total compensation of nearly $4.5 million, largely because of an option award valued at $3.9 million.

But Bachtell didn’t receive equity awards in 2021, when he had one of the lowest total compensation packages among his peers: $1.2 million.

Acreage Holdings CEO Peter Caldini also had one of the lowest compensation packages for marijuana CEOs in 2021, totaling just $900,000. But his numbers will be much higher in 2022.

Caldini soon will receive three bonuses of $833,000 each, for a total of $2.5 million, in reward for his continued service and to provide retention incentives, according to a regulatory filing from last week.

Stock-based pay volatile

Whittlesey also stressed how speculative the stock-based compensation numbers are.

Compensation breakdown for top multistate operators

NameCompanyTotal CompensationSalaryBonusIncentive PlanStockOptionsOther
George ArchosVerano Holdings$16,034,122$367,694$200,000$15,342,890$123,524$14
Abner KurtinAscend Wellness$15,960,000$851,827$350,000$1,000,000$13,750,000$8,173
James CacioppoJushi Holdings$9,871,132$487,132$2,124,000$7,260,000
Kim RiversTrulieve Cannabis$8,054,480$500,000$1,280,000$1,399,991$2,354,938$2,519,551
Robert Groesbeck (co-CEO)Planet 13 Holdings$6,495,401$492,918$492,000$5,472,785$37,698
Larry Scheffler (co-CEO)Planet 13 Holdings$6,486,865$492,918$492,000$5,472,785$29,162
Nicholas VitaColumbia Care$4,146,884$485,753$360,000$3,300,003
Jason Wild (excecutive chair)TerrAscend $2,278,385$516,216$1,762,169
Jonathan SandelmanAyr Wellness$1,786,458$586,458$1,200,000
Boris Jordan (executive chair)Curaleaf Holdings$1,750,000$750,000$1,000,000
Ben KovlerGreen Thumb Industries$1,714,256$345,002$869,254$500,000
Joe Bayern (former)Curaleaf Holdings$1,348,546$741,346$600,000$7,200
Charlie BachtellCresco Labs$1,249,676$450,000$798,476$1,200
Peter CaldiniAcreage Holdings$900,000$400,000$500,000
Tom Lynch (former)MedMen Enterprises$652,160$635,553$16,607
Source: Regulatory filings, Fred Whittlesey, Compensation Venture Group, MJBizDaily research

“The crash in cannabis stock prices shows that actual pay may be a fraction of the required disclosed figures reported last year,” he wrote in the email.

For example, Jushi Holdings CEO James Cacioppo received a grant of 2.92 million options in 2021, according to the company’s proxy statement.

Unlike other marijuana companies, Florida-based Jushi didn’t report a value for the option award in the executive compensation summary table, as is customary.

Whittlesey calculated the value of Cacioppo’s options at $7.26 million at the time of the award on Oct. 27, 2021, using a moderate range of assumptions and stock price volatility.

Jushi calculated a value of $7.15 million for the option grant, after being contacted by MJBizDaily.

But today, the value of those options is much lower, because Jushi’s stock price has declined more than 50% from $3.81 on Oct. 27, 2021, to roughly $1.75 per share.

Jushi calculated a fair market value of $2.4 million for those options as of last week’s stock price, while Whittlesey calculated a $4.7 million fair market value.

Fair market is a hypothetical value based on what would likely occur under “normal” conditions. Market value, by contrast, is what the stock actually sells for at a given point in time, such as when an executive exercises the options.

Whittelsey stressed that the hypothetical calculation depends on what values are placed in the formula, such as volatility.

“It’s easy to change assumptions to bring the number down,” Whittlesey wrote. “There are a lot of moving parts in an option valuation.”

As a practical matter, the calculation is unimportant, Whittlesey noted. The options are worth zero today because the stock price is well below the option-exercise price of $3.91 per share.

But Cacioppo’s options don’t expire until Oct. 27, 2031, so there’s plenty of time for the stock to recover, appreciate and make the options worth millions of dollars.

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Topping the list

Verano CEO George Archos topped the list as the highest-paid CEO at a publicly traded U.S. marijuana MSO, with 2021 compensation valued at just over $16 million.

The bulk of that sum included a stock award valued at $15.3 million.

Steve Mazeika, Verano’s director of communications, referred to the regulatory filing that indicated that the equity award was associated with Verano going public in early 2021 through a reverse takeover of an existing company.

Darren Weiss, Verano’s chief operating officer, received a stock award valued at $13.8 million related to that deal, boosting his total compensation package to $14.3 million, according to regulatory filings.

“Following our (initial public offering), we instituted a normalized corporate compensation structure, which will be outlined in a future public proxy statement,” Mazeika wrote in an email to MJBizDaily.

Abner Kurtin, CEO of New York-based Ascend Wellness, held the No 2. spot in 2021, with a compensation package valued at $15.96 million, according to the company’s proxy statement.

That included a stock award valued at $13.75 million.

Ascend Wellness noted in a statement to MJBizDaily that Kurtin’s compensation included a one-time bonus related to the company’s IPO, “and is therefore not reflective of his typical yearly compensation.”

The company added that Kurtin elected to take all of his 2022 compensation, with the exception of certain health care and other benefits, as Ascend Wellness common stock.

Jushi’s Cacioppo was the third-highest-compensated marijuana CEO in 2021, with a total package valued at $9.87 million.

In addition to his option award valued by Whittlesey, Cacioppo earned the highest total cash compensation of $2.6 million in 2021.

That included a salary of $487,132 and a bonus of $2,124,000 – the largest bonus paid to a U.S. marijuana CEO in 2021.

The bonus, however, was “put toward the repayment” of executive loans to the company, according to Jushi’s proxy statement.

Trulieve referred MJBizDaily to the company’s regulatory filings, which describe Rivers’ total compensation of $8 million in 2021.

Rivers, who ranked fourth in total compensation, heads a company that has long been at or toward the top of MSO profitability.

Meanwhile, Florida-based Trulieve rivals Massachusetts-based Curaleaf Holdings as the largest MSO in terms of total revenue.

Trulieve said in its regulatory filings that it believes in providing its senior executives with a “competitive pay package that includes a strong link between corporate performance and compensation” and that includes a combination of salary, annual bonuses and “long-term incentives in the form of equity-based compensation.”

Whittlesey noted that although the value of the 2021 equity awards have declined, the situation could reverse in the future.

Marijuana stock prices have taken a beating in large part because federal legalization hopes waned after a burst of enthusiasm following the 2020 elections, when Democrats took back the White House and, by the slimmest of margins, the U.S. Senate.

“I think everyone in the industry is hoping the reverse (in stock prices) occurs going forward and realized pay could be much higher over the next few years from the grants made in 2021,” Whittlesey wrote.

Jeff Smith can be reached at jeff.smith@mjbizdaily.com.