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The Global Cannabis Times Interview with Raj Grover, Part 1

High Tide, Inc. CEO’s Journey from an Entrepreneurial Family in Mumbai to Cannabis Industry Leader.

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High Tide President and CEO, Raj Grover. High Tide President and CEO, Raj Grover. Photo courtesy of High Tide, Inc.

Since founding its predecessor company in 2009, Raj Grover, Founder & CEO, has established High Tide as a key player in the Canadian cannabis retail market, with more than 150 stores. Building on his start as a consumption accessories retailer, Raj has expanded High Tide’s reach across North America and Europe by acquiring some of the top accessory e-commerce sites in the world and several CBD brands.

In this October 26th interview with Tom Adams for Global Cannabis Times, Raj discusses his vision for a chain of high-tech discount cannabis clubs, getting ready for regulatory changes and the growth opportunities they will afford him. The conversation provides insight into High Tide’s strategic positioning and Raj’s foresight in anticipating and adapting to market dynamics in the cannabis sector. That positioning recently paid off with the December 1st decision of Canada’s largest province, Ontario, to double the allowed number of cannabis stores.

 

TOM:

Give us a historical portrait of High Tide, starting from the very first idea of “Hey, let’s get into the legal cannabis industry.”

RAJ:

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Just to go back even further, I come from an entrepreneurial family, both of my Mom’s and my Dad’s side. So, there was a lot of business strategy discussed growing up in Mumbai, and that drove me to become a businessman.

When I came to Canada, I was a very young adult in my early 20s. Subsequently, I started a whole bunch of retail businesses: a restaurant, a convenience store business, and a distribution business selling fashion accessories. On a very fortunate trip, I was in a market in New Delhi, and I stumbled across consumption accessories.  The cool part was that the shop where I stopped was selling consumption accessories by weight, not by the piece, and because of this, I knew there was a tremendous amount of margin arbitrage there.

I’ve always been a calculated risk-taker, and this is how Smokers Corner was born, the predecessor to High Tide, which I launched in 2009. It was a consumption accessory store that I started with just two employees, a total investment of $50,000 and then organically built that company into 19 stores in Alberta, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia in Canada at its peak. The volume of products that I was moving was higher than other similar retail shops – but it was not high enough for my liking as growing up in India, I saw big volume businesses everywhere. So, I got into the distribution side of things when I founded RGR Canada in 2011 and started designing and distributing consumption accessories to other stores.

When Prime Minister Trudeau said that recreational cannabis was going to be allowed in Canada, I quickly started formulating my plan. I knew people were not going to shop for consumption accessories at my stores and then go to other spots to buy their cannabis.

I decided to take my company public at that time by converting some of the Smokers Corner stores into Canna Cabanas, starting with our home province of Alberta. Consumption accessories have always been a core part of our personality, which has helped us build this really successful business. However, High Tide looks like a very different company today.  We currently have 157 Canna Cabana stores operating across the five Canadian provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

High Tide’s flagship retail brand Canna Cabana, launched in 2018.

High Tide’s flagship retail brand Canna Cabana launched in 2018 Photo by Jill Thompson Photography

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We also have many more stores in the pipeline today as we are always in construction mode. We are going to add another three to four locations by the end of the year, and next year, we’ll be adding another 20 to 30 stores. We also have over 1.2 million members of the Cabana Club, which is the largest brick-and-mortar cannabis loyalty program in the country. Tom, we now have a very differentiated retail experience, as we modified our retail model due to hyper-competition, which still exists. We decided to create a membership-based concept and showcase the value that our members would be getting when they shop at our stores.

When you enter our stores, you see a market price and a member price. If you’re not a member, you’re going to be paying upwards of 10% to 25% on cannabis and up to 80% more than what our members pay for consumption accessories. If you are an ELITE member, which is the paid version of our of our membership program, then you get even more discounts and a ton of other perks. Our innovative discount club model is a very differentiated retail concept which is the first of its kind in North America, or anywhere for that matter, in cannabis.

We also own and operate three of the largest consumption accessories platforms in the world, and also three of the top-tier hemp-derived CBD e-commerce platforms, which are NuLeaf Naturals and FABCBD in the US and Blessed CBD in the UK and  Germany.

However,  our main brick-and-mortar business is 90% of all of our revenue which is supported by our ancillary business lines of consumption accessories and CBD.

TOM:

How did the idea for the online side of things develop?

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RAJ:

We are right next to the largest cannabis market in the world. So, my whole thing was, how do we get into the US? I had an immediate opportunity in hand to expand in Canada, and I obviously wanted to win the home turf first before we could start expanding into the US. Therefore, I started plotting my moves quite early and purchased GrassCity.com in 2018, even prior to going public. GrassCity is the oldest online head shop for smoking accessories in the world.  It gets 20,000,000 to 26,000,000 site visits per year. Fast forward to 2021, when I had a bit more capital to expand, I did a series of transactions in the US, and purchased five additional e-commerce platforms. Now, we are designing, manufacturing, distributing and retailing consumption accessories, having access to the full value chain.

When cannabis retail became tough, really tough here in Canada, I had to quickly get additional margins so we were able to compete here. I’m personally very passionate and believe in the health and therapeutic benefits of CBD as well as its global appeal because CBD is non-psychoactive. I knew it was going to cross borders quicker than cannabis and that it’s a high-margin product, and this is why we did three additional M&A transactions and purchased online CBD brands. Tom, this was very, very helpful for our strategy in Canada as our Canadian peers were struggling. I was juicing myself up with additional gross margins, which was very handy for the launch of our innovative discount club model where we had to sacrifice margins, which meant we had to get them somewhere else.

TOM:

Interesting. So you were never going to be an LP and produce cannabis.

RAJ:

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I think it was 2014 or 2015, when I did think about becoming an LP because I was like, “OK, how hard can this be? Business is business, you know?” I actually went and filled out the application and was at the first fingerprinting stage. After completing my application, I didn’t submit it because I realized “I’m not a farmer at heart, and this is not what I’ve learned in my life. I can run a good business, but I am passionate about retail, distribution, you know, import, export stuff that I’ve done all my life, and I get it.” So I decided not to do that, and that was the best decision ever.

TOM:

So well, let me test your passion for business a little bit by getting into some of the weeds a little bit on a couple of financial analytical issues that you’re in a unique position to understand. Adjusted EBITDA, for example. I understand the concept for the LP’s and their adjustment to EBITDA based on of the value of the plants in the ground. But for you as a retailer, what is adjusted EBITDA?

RAJ:

If you look at our adjusted EBITDA, you know that we just hit $10.2 million, which was a record. You know, I have stopped talking about adjusted EBITDA because now I like to talk about free cash flow. Cash is king, and if you can generate cash in this environment well, then you’re really insulating yourself, and you know that you’re setting yourself apart from everybody else, which should eventually get that attention from investors.

TOM:

So what’s deducted from EBITDA to get free cash flow?

RAJ:

Free cash flow is your absolute cash that’s remaining in the business after all expenses including your leases minus growth Capex. Free cash flow is what your company is generating in cash after considering all expenses for running your business.

TOM:

And you talked a little bit on the recent call of laying plans as to where that free cash flow might go: into expansion in the US and the rest of the world. So let’s think about that a little bit. Do you see it as a continued ecommerce play in the US. And what will be the trigger to unleash some of that free cash flow?

RAJ:

We have an opportunity to build at least another 100 stores in Canada as we are absolutely taking over the country with our concept. Canna Cabana is becoming a household name as more and more consumers are flocking to our concept which is continuing to generate cash here in Canada.

We don’t want to lose out on the opportunity in hand and chase something that is not even allowed as a NASDAQ traded company as we don’t want to break any rules. We will have to wait our turn and capitalize on the opportunities we have on hand.

Having said that, I’d love to do business in the US. I’m super excited to get into the world’s largest cannabis market, and I’ve publicly stated that High Tide’s goal is to be a top-five multi-state operator in the United States. I want to be in the top five, you know, and I think we can do it through our discount club model, which is highly differentiated, but we are going to have to wait our turn for federal legalization.

We have 3 million customers in the US alone that are buying these pipes, bongs, vapes and CBD products. That’s a lot of customers. You know we have 1.2 million members of the Canna Cabana club here in Canada, but three million US ancillary cannabis customers, which we want to turn into cannabis customers starting online or as we open dispensaries in these states. We have this head start ahead of most of the US MSO’s which will come in very, very handy.

 Canna Cabana is now the largest non-franchised cannabis retailer in Canada

Canna Cabana is now the largest non-franchised cannabis retailer in Canada. Photo by Jill Thompson Photography.

And you know, we’ve built a lot of relationships over the last 15 years in cannabis. We know who the small, medium and larger operators are on the dispensary side south of the border, and we’ve had many discussions with operators who love what High Tide is doing. Mostly small, but when I say small, this would include a dozen stores in

different states. So, our strategy in the US is to enter through a series of acquisitions and convert them into our discount club model when we enter the US as we also apply for organic licenses.TOM:

I think you’ll find a lot of interested sellers in the US market when the time comes, but let’s stick to Canada for a minute. How many stores are there? You’ve got 150 and what’s the total.

RAJ:

Yeah, so we are only 4.5 percent of the country’s total brick-and-mortar store count, but we are 9.5% of the Canadian retail market share in terms of dollars.

(Part II of this Interview is scheduled for publication on Wednesday, December 27th, 2023)

 

TOM ADAMS is the CEO of Global Go Analytics. As founder of Adams Media Research and Adams Cannabis Research, as well as former head of Industry Intelligence at BDSA, Tom is unrivaled as an industry analyst and strategic consultant in legal cannabis.

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