Bankers Are Flocking to Canadian Cannabis Startups

(Bloomberg) -- Peter Aceto spent 21 years in banking, building an online lender in Canada for ING Groep NV and Bank of Nova Scotia.

The executive, who left Scotiabank’s Tangerine unit 18 months ago, is now blazing a career with other bankers in cannabis. Aceto joined CannTrust Holdings Inc. this month as chief executive officer, excited by the prospect of joining what he expects will become a trillion-dollar global industry.

Bankers Are Flocking to Canadian Cannabis Startups

“There are not a lot of times in a lifetime that opportunities like this come up,” Aceto, 49, said in a phone interview. “I made the choice to be part of this industry and I foresee that I’m going to be in this industry for a very, very long time.”

Aceto joins a parade of financial-services professionals who’ve left tried-and-true careers to take a chance on the burgeoning cannabis sector. Canada, which has allowed medical marijuana for almost two decades, legalizes the drug for recreational use on Oct. 17, joining Uruguay as one of two countries without restrictions on pot. That’s put Canada at the forefront of what could be a $150 billion-plus global market when others follow, according to estimates by Roth Capital Partners LLC.

“The cannabis opportunities are about growth and about scaling and about innovation and about customer orientation and branding, and they’re global opportunities -- that’s why I was particularly interested in the space,” Aceto said. “It does take some tolerance of risk, because I don’t think any of us know exactly how it’s going to play out.”

Bankers are finding a home at Canadian marijuana producers, which are recruiting specialists for acquisitions, corporate development and strategy as well as seasoned managers and executives. Younger, less-experienced investment bankers are making the leap along with veterans seeking executive and board roles that may have eluded them in the past, said Bill Vlaad, president of financial services recruitment firm Vlaad & Co.

“This is an industry that attracts bright, adventurous young professionals -- it’s the new hip, happening thing,” Vlaad said in an interview. “If you can survive it, you’re going to have a lifetime of memories and experience.”

Daniel Wang joined Tilray Inc. this month as a manager of corporate development and mergers and acquisitions, after working two years at Bank of Montreal’s BMO Capital Markets investment banking division. He thought he’d be a “career banker” when he was at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“If you had told me that I would have gone to a cannabis company after I had just spent C$100K at Rotman’s getting my MBA, I would have told you you were out of your mind,” Wang, 31, said in an interview. “It wasn’t something that was in the cards.”

Wang started working on deals involving cannabis firms and realized what he loved about banking he could still do in the marijuana sector, and get ahead.

“When you’re in a bank you’re a small part of a big machine, but in these cannabis companies in the roles we’re going into, you’re a big part of the growth,” Wang said. “That’s very rare for people our age and in this stage in our careers.”

Though banks pay “way more” in terms of compensation, Wang said the cannabis industry is willing to reward employees with equity -- an attractive incentive, given the surge in pot stocks this year -- and provide a rare experience.

Something Unique

“It’s a chance to be a part of something unique in terms of Canadian business history,” Wang said.

Early movers like Wang are advancing into an industry that’s one of the few bright spots in the Canadian stock market, which has lagged the U.S. for most of the past two years.

Recruitment firm Robert Walters Plc has seen about 20 percent of its work in Canada come from the cannabis industry this year, and the agency has placed six financial-services professionals with marijuana companies since January, said Martin Fox, managing director in Canada for the London-based global employment agency. Candidates with backgrounds in accounting and investment banking in particular are drawn to the buzz of this new, rapidly growing industry, he said.

Manageable Life

“The attraction of trading a life of extremely long hours advising clients on their deals versus a more manageable normal daily life working on deals that your company is actually doing, buying companies for the company you work for, is very attractive,” Fox said at his Toronto office. “People are willing to sacrifice on the compensation side to work in that environment.”

Canopy Rivers Inc.’s Daniel Pearlstein left his equity research job at Eight Capital in April to join the venture capital investment arm of Canopy Growth Corp. as an executive vice president and head of strategy, drawn to the prospects for the firm’s global opportunities.

He had plenty of experience as one of Canada’s first analysts to cover cannabis, starting in 2014 while working at boutique Toronto firm M Partners.

“It’s been my life for a number of years,” Pearlstein, 31, said in a phone interview. “I’m really excited that I’m in it and really looking forward to what the future has in front of me.”

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