Canadian marijuana stocks have been some of the best performing investments of 2016, as the Liberal Government that came to power toward the end of last year made legalization of the drug one of its planks during the federal election.
It is unclear, however, precisely what form legalization will take from the perspective of producers, as there is sure to be regulation and oversight when it comes to growing and distribution. Investment in a would-be producer is somewhat of a binary play -- if a company obtains approval to produce under the current or any new regulatory regime, it has the potential to generate revenue and show investors that its management team can run a profitable business. If for whatever reason it does not get a green light to produce, then it’s back to the drawing board.
True Leaf Medicine International (CSE:MJ) was an early entrant in the space, being the 48th company to submit a production application to Health Canada. But while highly confident that its application will eventually receive the government’s endorsement, the company has aggressively developed a related business whose early success has caught the attention of investors and removes some of the concern about ongoing sustainability. If Health Canada grants True Leaf approval to produce marijuana within the next year or so, it will essentially come as a very large bonus.
Harnessing the spending habits of millennials when it comes to both their own health and that of their animal friends, True Leaf established a new division in autumn of 2015 to develop and market nutritional supplements for pets that contain hemp and other ingredients targeting specific health conditions. According to Chief Executive Officer Darcy Bomford, True Leaf sees annual sales in the True Leaf Pet division potentially reaching close to $30 million in five years’ time.
“We know we can sell pet products today and there are no legal issues. We have a great product line and that is our focus,” explains Bomford. “We count zero revenue on the True Leaf Medicine side in our model, so any value attributed as we move through the various stages of Health Canada’s approvals process just improves our prospects.”
Bomford knows of what he speaks when it comes to pet products, having spent some 25 years of his career to date in the manufacture and marketing of natural products for the industry. His previous company was purchased in 2012, which freed him up to work with True Leaf, and further to consider the pet food space once the non-compete clause in the transaction agreement had expired.
“A lot of people don’t realize how big the pet food industry is until they get a dog – once you go to the pet food aisle or a specialty retailer, that is when you sense its massive size,” says Bomford. “Our product line is geared toward the millennial and baby boomer generations, which tend to appreciate natural ingredients and the value of nutritional balance.”
Being in a big industry is great, but it typically means there is lots of competition. Fortunately for True Leaf, their products have clear points of differentiation.
True Hemp Chews come in three different formulations: Hip + Joint, Calming and Health.
“Hip + Joint is for inflammation in older dogs, Calming is for anxious dogs, and Health incorporates antioxidants for general wellness support,” says Bomford. “Each formula has a hemp seed or hemp seed oil base, and then we add other ingredients. Hip + Joint has natural sources of glucosamine from green lip mussel, and it also contains turmeric root, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. With Calming we use an amino acid from green tea call L-theanine, plus calming herbs such as chamomile and lemon balm. Health support has DHA, a form of Omega-3 from algae, and pomegranate.”
True Leaf has gotten True Hemp Chews onto the shelves of approximately 500 retail outlets in North America so far. Next steps involve building out the line with new products and increasing the store count. Bomford sees the line extensions leading to larger order sizes from both distributors and individual stores. “We have an oil product that you pour on your pet’s food every day, and a stick format that covers the chewing function,” says Bomford. “Down the road we are looking at launching a veterinary line with higher inclusions of the active ingredients and a functional chew for cats that addresses joint health.”
Moving quickly to make the most of its early-mover advantage, True Leaf introduced True Hemp Chews to the European market in May of this year and is now featured in the well-established Pets Corner chain of stores in the UK. Expansion into continental Europe is on tap for 2017.
True Leaf developed its products with assistance from a graduate student at Cornell University, and given his background Bomford knows how to take the formulations, brand them properly and build the business. “We use the co-pack model to avoid becoming capital intensive,” explain Bomford. “With my previous contacts I know basically all of the manufacturers worldwide, so we leverage other companies’ manufacturing capacity and focus our efforts on the brand. This is a necessary model for international expansion because we can have products made to order locally. We just provide the packaging and then are able to warehouse nearby and serve that geographic market.”
Balance in nutrition and balance in business. It is a combination that investors so far seem to be liking, and the philosophy has enabled Bomford to attract a balanced management team as well, with deep experience in everything from marketing to finance and quality control. Even former British Columbia Premier Mike Harcourt is on board – quite literally, as Chairman.
“I think in general, the marijuana producers that have legs at this stage of the industry’s development are those with alternative revenue streams. That is what our pet supplement division provides us and we are happy with our progress there so far,” Bomford concludes. “True Leaf has a very good chance to develop its Medicine division as a supplier of medical marijuana, but you have to put yourself in a position to weather the storm that is the approvals process. I believe we have set our company up well to do that.”