On the Rise

Features - Cover Story

With a focus on community, core values and a ‘Gauntlet’ hiring process, Green Thumb Industries’ RISE is quickly becoming one of the country’s largest cannabis retailers.

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June 19, 2018
Jillian Kramer
Pete Kadens has launched three successful businesses in addition to Green Thumb Industries, including the solar development company SoCore Energy.
© Charles Bouril

Serial entrepreneur Pete Kadens was already onto his second mega-successful business —the commercial solar energy installations company SoCore Energy—when a colleague, Ben Kovler, called him with a proposition: to launch a cannabis business in the wake of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2013 decision to sign into law the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which would allow medical marijuana in the state.

Kadens, though he’d recently sold SoCore to Edison International and signed a contract to stay on as an executive, jumped at the chance. As he describes, it was a question of morality, not opportunity.

“The reason I was interested is—truth be told—not because I have an intimate connection to the plant, but because … I have an anthropological fascination with poverty,” Kadens says. “What I have learned is that of all the permutations of poverty, the vast majority of the people—with whom I have interfaced—have gotten there because of some non-violent drug crime.” He wanted to change that.

“With so many communities crushed by the war on drugs, we believe that we have a moral imperative to not only help rebuild these communities, but also to help the individuals who have suffered rebuild their lives through gainful employment opportunities,” Kadens explains.

“When I have the opportunity to invest my own money in this mission, I’m like, ‘I’m in,’” he says.

“But when we wrote that first six-figure check, I told my wife, ‘You might as well burn this money because we will never see it again.’” Kadens wasn’t sure they’d win a license, let alone build a successful brand. “And she said, ‘Then why are we doing this?’ And I said, ‘Because this is the right thing to do,’” regardless of whether they’d win a license.

Not only did Kadens and Kovler snag a license and launch Green Thumb Industries (GTI), they have since successfully opened 13 dispensaries in five states, most under the name RISE, with another seven expected to open by December. The company has also secured 25 additional licenses across the country, and those dispensaries are slated to open in 2019.

The 13 existing dispensaries opened as medical facilities, though many are incorporating recreational as state laws shift. For example, its two Nevada dispensaries (Carson City and Spanish Springs) converted to include adult-use in January, following Nevada’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana beginning July 2017. This July, Massachusetts dispensaries will be able to legally sell recreational cannabis, and RISE’s Amherst store is prepared.

© Melanie Zacek

GTI also has dispensaries in Maryland and Pennsylvania and is looking to expand into Florida. It recently won five licenses in Ohio, too. “We are very pleased with the outcome of the Ohio dispensary awards,” Kadens says. “The fact that we won the max number of licenses—five—is a testament to the exemplary track record we have of serving patients and communities around the country.”

Through all that, GTI’s home base remains Illinois. It is headquartered there, and it’s where the company launched its first dispensary in 2015. At that time, Kadens’ contract with Edison International was ending, and it was the perfect time, he says, to make cannabis his priority. To that end, he initiated a conversation with Kovler about expanding the brand nationally.

“I said, ‘What about taking this concept and scaling it?’” Kadens recalls. He made the full-time leap to cannabis when his partner challenged him to take up the task himself. “At that time, we had two grows and one dispensary, and probably 30 employees,” he says. “We’ve grown by dramatic proportions since then.”

Today, GTI has seven vertically integrated production facilities with a total of roughly 400,000 square feet of cultivation canopy, and employs 400 people. “It’s a big operation, with a lot of real estate and a lot of capacity in terms of what can be produced,” Kadens says. “One of the key areas of focus for me and our executive team is continuous improvement every single day. The goal was always to produce consistent and trustworthy product—you just never want to have a letdown, or hear that a consumer has had a bad experience with your flowers or edibles.”

“We integrate the community into our name because our goal is to have a very close connection with our community. We want our facilities to be a gathering place—like home—for the members of that community.” Pete Kadens, director/CEO, Green Thumb Industries

The dispensaries have a strong focus on community and customer service, too. Most dispensaries under the GTI umbrella are called RISE, with a nod to the store’s location tagged on at the end. There is RISE Erie, RISE Bethesda, and so on. “We integrate the community into our name because our goal is to have a very close connection with our community,” Kadens says. “We want our facilities to be a gathering place—like home—for the members of that community.”

Each RISE is fitted with vibrant lighting and the company’s bright color scheme. “The [employees] are cordial and nice, and it feels like a very collegial atmosphere,” Kadens describes. “I hate to use a cliché, but it’s kind of like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name.”

Like ‘Cheers,’ RISE dispensaries are meant to be friendly. “Dispensaries around the country are a lot to take in,” Kadens says. “There are a lot of undereducated consumers out there, and the menus are massive. ... The care specialists don’t spend a lot of time with consumers because there are a lot of transactions to be done.” That said, he adds, “we like to do things a little bit differently. We like the time to be well spent and feel like a connection is developing … between the consumer and the care specialist. We like people to feel at home and very welcome.”

RISE’s medical dispensary origins come in handy at its now-recreational stores. Designed to help medical patients, the adult-use dispensaries still have cubicles where customers can enjoy privacy while they speak to the store’s care specialists. “We still find that the most important relationship is … between the care specialist and the consumer, and whether that’s a patient who’s under the medical platform or an adult-access consumer, it’s still very important to us,” Kadens says.

Even those without diagnosed medical issues and medical cards “want to have that … connection with the care specialist,” Kadens continues. “The interaction is one-on-one and it’s confidential. We do not want to be a crazy transactional place—we don’t want our dispensaries to look like a McDonald’s line. That doesn’t feel very community-like.”

© Charles Bouril

A Worthy Cause

For Kadens, philanthropy is a primary concern. That’s why GTI is committed to helping non-violent drug offenders clear their records, as well as earn the ability to have gainful employment, including at RISE dispensaries. (In many states, people with drug records cannot work in cultivation facilities or dispensaries, so GTI is unable to hire them unless their records are first cleared.)

This commitment echoes Kadens’ belief that many people are impoverished because of minor, non-violent drug offenses, and that by changing that cycle, poverty could be greatly reduced.

GTI also recently held a job fair in Massachusetts, welcoming more than 400 people and 50 potential employers. Attorneys were also on site to help previous drug offenders clear their criminal histories. “That is how change starts,” Kadens says. “And then one day we can eventually hire them.”

Matt Yee left a longtime, successful family restaurant business to work for RISE dispensaries. After meeting Kadens—at one of his family’s restaurants—Yee says he was drawn to join the team.
© Melanie Zacek

Keeping It Straight

If maintaining dispensaries in several states sounds as if it might be confusing, it is. “Every market is so idiosyncratic—they’re all unique, provincial fiefdoms,” Kadens describes. In Maryland, for example, you can’t sell edibles—and in Pennsylvania, flower sales were initially prohibited and only begin this summer.

“In Massachusetts, there is no home delivery, but in Nevada there is,” Kadens says. “In Pennsylvania, we have to keep years of surveillance data ..., but in Nevada it’s 90 days. And in Pennsylvania, if you have anything more than a summary offense, we can’t hire you—in Maryland, it has to be a felony [to make a person un-hirable]. So every state has its own thing that we have to be clearly aware of, and it is tough to manage. And that is just one thing that makes this business so complex: It’s very tough to scale it [across the country].”

Branding is also difficult to keep straight, Kadens says. For example, RISE has its own packaging, but that packaging might need to include a tamper-proof sticker in one state, but not in another. GTI and RISE work with an external branding team that “understands our brand standards and how to apply them across the markets,” Kadens says. “These people work within the regulatory framework and make sure that our brand is as consistent as possible, working to maintain the color scheme, the look, the feel and the energy.”

© Melanie Zacek

The A-Team

Kadens credits his staff with the company’s interstate success. “I would never be so brazen as to say we’re the best operator or the best grower. But I’ll tell you this: I’d put our hiring system and protocols up against any other company in the country. We take it so seriously and we’re so thoughtful about every person we hire.”

In fact, Kadens personally approves every company hire. “We have a process called ‘The Gauntlet,’ and I am the final approver on The Gauntlet,” he says, “and it’s in place to ensure that every single person on the payroll—down to someone who is a $13-an-hour trimmer at one of our production facilities—meets all of our eight cultural standards.”

Kadens says those standards are the “secret sauce” to GTI’s success, so he would only divulge a few of them. The first standard he sets for potential employees, Kadens says, is the use of good judgment. “We want people who have shown time and time again that they use good judgment,” he describes. Another standard is, as Kadens says, “embracing your inner weirdo. We want people to be themselves. We want people to be authentic. We don’t want phonies and disingenuous people. We want to really know people so we know how to manage them.” That plays into the last standard Kadens was willing to share: Employees at GTI must use “excessive honesty” at all times at work.

“All it takes is one person—I don’t care if they’re an intern or an hourly laborer or a senior executive … to screw up an entire company,” Kadens explains.

© Melanie Zacek

Staying Social

Another way GTI and RISE stay connected to the community is through social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, and sites such as Leafly and Weedmaps. And GTI is adding team members to specifically handle social media.

“We do want to be responsive to consumers’ concerns and questions, so we have people … on our outlets in charge of responding in real time,” Kadens explains. For him, that means within two hours—never more.

Social media is “a great way to access the community and really engage people and create some noise and show people what our culture is like,” adds Matt Yee, GTI’s market president for Massachusetts. “We get feedback and get people excited on social media. And overall, when everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, it’s an incredible resource for us.”

© Melanie Zacek

GTI and RISE also make an effort to provide as much information on their websites and social media platforms as possible, from sharing industry news to educational materials. “People are insatiably curious and under-educated,” Kadens explains. “Consumers trust people who provide them with education.” In that sense, then, by providing guides and news online, GTI and RISE are bettering its relationships with customers, too.

“This isn’t like a widget—you’re putting this in your body,” Kadens explains. “This is something that is going to … affect my central nervous system and my brain. I want to understand how it works,” Kadens says. “So we want to use every single format possible to educate our under-educated consumers.” Kadens adds, “... The more we educate them, the more we build that bond of trust between us and our consumers.”

Jillian Kramer is a New York City-based freelance journalist.