When Terry Booth’s business partner approached him in the summer of 2013 with a relative’s plea for money to launch a medical marijuana business, he knew nothing about the industry.
Booth, an electrician who built a construction permitting business in Edmonton with partner Steve Dobler, declined to give the loan, concluding the relative lacked sufficient business acumen to ensure the venture’s success.
Instead, Booth and Dobler took the idea for a legal pot grow-op and ran with it, rewarding the “visionaries” who had the initial spark with positions in the startup.
Nearly four years later, Aurora Cannabis is Canada’s second-largest publicly traded marijuana company, worth $832.7 million on the stock market.
“We catapulted and leapfrogged most of our competition; there is one left in our way, and I can’t wait to leapfrog them,” Booth said, referring to Canopy Growth Corp., valued at $1.36 billion.
Booth and Dobler started Aurora with their own money, and at one point had invested a combined $8 million in the project. They have both remained among the grower’s largest shareholders, which means their net worths have risen in step with the company’s.
Like other investors, Alberta’s princes of pot have been riding a big green wave that has lifted share prices across the industry, and has only intensified with Ottawa’s firm proposal for a recreational market.
“It’s not the money; it’s to win,” Booth said. “An entrepreneurial spirit is to win the battle and become the best cannabis company in the world …
“Have the capital markets increased Terry’s and Steve’s personal net worth? You bet they have. They’ve also increased the personal net worth of investors who believed in us since Day 1 in Alberta.”
Aurora is not alone in having company insiders hold significant positions in their cannabis stocks. The co-founders of Aphria Inc., Canada’s third-largest marijuana company that’s nipping at Aurora’s heels, are major shareholders of their company.
Among other cases, a director at Toronto’s Cronos Group Inc. is one of its largest stockholders, while Canopy Growth’s two co-founders are among its top five shareholders, though only one remains with the company.
“From an investor’s standpoint, it’s probably a good sign,” said Khurram Malik, an analyst at Jacob Capital Management Inc. “A fairly significant piece of their net worth is tied to the success of the business.”
Aurora this week reported its revenues rose by a third, to $5.2 million, in the latest quarter over year-ago levels, but the company still isn’t profitable.
Executive vice-president Cam Battley had previously estimated Aurora would enter profit-making territory by the end of June, but he wouldn’t commit to that timetable Tuesday.
“We will get there in the short term,” said Battley, who jumped ship from Canopy Growth to join Aurora in March 2016. “But I am hesitant to project a date for profitability simply because we are in a growth phase.”
Aurora recently bought a bankrupt Quebec grower with a mostly built production facility for $7 million in cash and shares. It spent another $6.4 million to secure a 19.9 per cent stake in Australia’s first publicly traded medical marijuana producer.
The company has also been raising a war chest through share and debt offerings.
“I couldn’t get $50 last year and now we’re sitting at over $170 million in a bank account,” Booth said.
In a note to clients Tuesday, analysts with the investment bank reiterated their recommendation to buy the stock, while they raised their target price for Aurora shares from $3.00 each to $3.25.
The higher target is due in part to projected future earnings from a recreational market, though the analysts said their estimates could be conservative.
Aurora said in its latest earnings report that construction at its 800,000-square-foot greenhouse near the Edmonton airport will wrap up next year, but production at an initial phase is expected to start by late 2017.
At full capacity, the facility could produce more than 100,000 kilograms a year, generating $800 million in revenues, based on the current average selling price of $8 per gram.
The company has 13,600 customers buying medicinal products from its existing greenhouse north of Calgary, generating earnings that Booth argued are enough to justify Aurora’s $832.7 million valuation.
Analysts say many cannabis companies are overvalued because the industry has attracted investors at a frenetic pace, driving up share prices in a similar frenzy to what fed the dot-com bubble.
“I hate that comparative because we’re nothing like dot-com,” Booth said. “We are certainly not overvalued.”
Aurora entered the stock market in late 2014 through a reverse takeover deal with a mining company, the same path taken by several other cannabis firms.
The dot-com bubble had also attracted publicly traded shell companies, many of them previously involved in mining and oil and gas exploration.
Industry defenders say Canada’s large cannabis players are not in bubble territory because they have real products generating sales, with an existing market for illicit cannabis that will open up with legalization.
Aurora ended up in prolonged litigation with officials from the mining company it acquired over claims they failed to meet commitments to raise financing, which were conditions for stock-based incentive plans. A settlement was reached in January.
After Aurora’s revenues spiked in the latest quarter, Booth insisted the grower’s success is rooted in its performance, not because of an industry-wide fervour. He said he’s building a company “that is in no danger of doing an upside down turn in the markets.”
“I don’t want to be dead and have Nick, my son, be walking around Edmonton (and have somebody) saying, ‘Hey, your old man killed me on a pot deal,” Booth said. “It’s about execution and success and winning.”