Bushels of Ambition: Q&A With Steve White, CEO of Harvest

Jim Louvau
Steve White, CEO of Harvest, has a couple-billion things to smile about.
Steve White, CEO of Harvest Health and Recreation, has become one of the biggest names in the global cannabis industry, overseeing a company with stock now worth about $2.4 billion.

White’s from Tempe — a graduate of Corona Del Sol High School, where he played basketball and swam. He graduated from Arizona State University in 1995 with a degree in political science, then went on to earn a law degree at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

After Arizona voters approved Prop 203 in 2010, putting the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act on the books, he decided to apply for a dispensary license. He and his partners ended up with two, foreshadowing the huge mergers and acquisitions to come for him and the business.

The company offers over-the-counter stock in the U.S., and last year it became part of the Canadian Securities Exchange. Last month, Harvest received huge international attention when it signed an $850 million merger deal, the largest U.S. cannabis deal in history, with Verano Holdings, an Illinois company.

Phoenix New Times sat down with White a couple of weeks ago to ask him about the meteoric rise of his company. (His answers, while in his own words, have been edited mildly for clarification and for brevity.)

How does it feel to be a cannabis big shot?

Steve White: It’s kind of overwhelming. When we started, the goal was to get a single license. [We thought] someday, if all goes well, we can sell it for $10 million. That would be amazing if that would happen.

We were those guys who just opened our doors in Tempe. I worked as a receptionist. I worked as a greeter. I worked as a budtender. I worked at the register — I did it all.

[Now] we’ve got market cap of over $2 billion. To me, I don’t even have an understanding of what that means. I can’t really wrap my head around it.

If we would have told you this [in the early 2010s], you’d have thought it was bullshit. The government was promising we were going to jail.

What has this wealth meant for you, personally?

The idea of lavish expenditures, it doesn’t click as something I do. I’m in a position as a shareholder, not someone who has a big bank account.

At some point, you retire, you sell your shares, you enjoy all the spoils of your hard work. But for now, I’m just a guy with a spreadsheet.

With this $850 million deal announced and Harvest becoming a nationally known name, should people still consider buying your stock?

It makes sense to buy our stock at this point. It’s going up — unless you believe that the genie’s going to get stuffed back in the bottle and put away. That’s obviously not going to happen.

People are just discovering it — like, “Wow, this cannabis thing might be big.” Of course it is!

When we hired our chief marketing officer, [he said] “I don’t want salary. I want more stock.” We paid him all in options. When somebody says that, my response is we have to hire him, because [he’s] betting on [himself].

Do the many budtenders and others on the ground floor of the cannabis industry have a chance to partake in the growth of the industry?

We have a guy in cultivation — he started as a trimmer. Now, he’s the assistant director of cultivation. He started at the register. He now makes great money, has bonus potential, and has [stock] options. So the opportunities are there.

Would you tell people who want to get ahead in the industry to finish their college degrees? What would be your advice for them?

I did too much school. I spent too much time in classrooms. My answer is always go to work.

The guy who’s assistant director of cultivation, I have no idea if he has a college degree, and I could care less. It doesn’t make him more or less valuable to the company.

If you’re willing to put in the time, you meet the threshold of competency, and you work your ass off, go seize the opportunity. You can always go back to school.

Why did you get into the Canadian stock exchange?

We found ourselves in a position to expand, and expand very quickly. There are two choices in buying other companies: Pay cash, or pay them in shares. So we integrate that currency to fuel the growth across the country. The big thing is we needed that stock to use as currency.

Now I fly around and talk to portfolio managers and things like that, telling them the Harvest story. If they buy stock, the stock goes up in price. Our employees make more money. Everyone’s happy.

The hard part is, because it’s currency, if it goes down in currency, you issue more of it to acquire the same asset. If it’s worth more, it’s easier to spend.

Was it tough to enter the Canadian stock market?

It’s not as tough as Wall Street — the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ. It took months of meetings with many lawyers and accountants.

When did Harvest first start expanding after it acquired its Arizona licenses?

We started in Nevada, got a share of 15 licenses. (Then came a license in Illinois, followed by several other states.)

(White said the merger in 2017 with Modern Flower, at the time the largest cannabis wholesale supplier in Arizona, was key because of a newfound partnership with Jason Vedadi, Modern Flower’s founder. Vedadi is now executive chairman of Harvest Health and Recreation.)

[Vedadi] had a perfect skill set for growth in cannabis. He’s less interested in the details. That has turned out to be perfect.

click to enlarge Steve White - COURTESY OF HARVEST
Steve White
Courtesy of Harvest
We had this moment where we’re sitting in the conference room; we listed all the state opportunities. I said, “All right, which one should we do?” He said, “Let’s them do them all.” I was like, “Fuck, let’s do it.”

There were times when I would get tired because I was doing so much. He works his butt off — I can’t disappoint him, so it energizes me. If he gets tired, he’s looking at me — so we fueled each other. We feed off of it.

You will see us do acquisitions faster than ever — that’s Jason’s job. I handle licenses, Jason handles M&A [mergers and acquisitions].

Then, there was a turning point. At some point, we were talking about investment, talking an exit. We looked around — we were too big for anyone to buy us. So what are we going to do now? We’ll be the biggest of all of them. Because when the outside person comes in [to make an offer to buy the company], you have to be the largest.

(By 2018, Harvest had acquired 40 licenses across Arizona, Arkansas, California, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. When the Verano deal is finalized, the company will control 123 retail licenses in 16 states.)

What’s it like to run a multistate business when the products can’t cross state lines?

Imagine a scenario: You want a suit. And in Arizona, you’ve got to buy yourself some sheep, raise them up, shave them, process the wool, now weave yourself a suit. And then here’s the deal — you can’t drive across state lines with that suit. When you go to New Mexico, you’ve got to buy sheep again. That’s so dumb.

What you end up with is very inefficient economic policy — inefficiencies, which create inconsistencies. But that’s the world we live in, and it’s the world we’re going to live in for quite a while longer.

If the feds legalize marijuana nationally, at least for states that want it, how would that change Harvest and businesses like it?

It depends on how it’s legalized. [If across all states], it’s a phenomenal thing for Harvest and for cannabis businesses across the country, along with every person that wants to use it. That will allow things like some normalized banking. They’ll fix the federal income tax issues. It’ll allow people to freely invest in U.S. cannabis companies.

What about consistency?

The more normalized the business becomes, the easier it is to deliver consistent products across the country. The Safe Banking Act, STATES Act — all of it helps. [But] it’s full decriminalization or the ability to cross state lines, is what’s going to really take us over the line.

What’s your favorite strain?

I can answer it a couple of ways. The first strain I ever smelled that didn’t smell gross to me was Green Crack, or Green Crush. Then I realized it’s the sweet smells that I like. So we had something called deep sweet grapefruit that was — it was grapefruit, grapefruit in a little jar.

(It’s not for sale anymore.) It wasn’t potent enough, but it smelled really good. It was a 9 percent tester. It was grown in Flagstaff.

What are the best products for medicinal effects?

To me, and this is an insight into a window of how to market — there are some trusted brands that are able to deliver consistency over time. And the ones that are able to do it very well are products that are derived from distillate. You strip out inconsistencies between batches and harvests. When you break it down, to that level, you can put the same amount in every time, whether it is chocolate, a brownie, a capsule — I don’t care the form it comes in. That’s what you’re looking for.

What’s the most amazing medicinal story you’ve heard in the past few years?

It’s so broad. It goes from the old person who becomes giggly because they are not dealing with seriously arthritic conditions and other stuff, to kids that are interacting with their parents and teachers in a way that they couldn’t before, and everything in between. So there are people whose lives have been extended and enriched, and in some instances rediscovered. The examples are numerous.

What are the biggest problems with marijuana and its increasing medicinal use?

I always worry when I see people putting aside traditional medicine that’s worthy because they prefer the concept of cannabis. I always tell people if something’s working, stick with it, please. If it’s alleviating symptoms, keep doing that. If there are horrible side effects, now we’re having a different conversation.

I worry about the same kind of mindset that might cause someone to not vaccinate their children — it could lead to irresponsible medical choices. The doctor-patient relationship should be sacrosanct. People should be able to trust their physicians.

There’s also always the issue when you’re talking about an intoxicant, when you combine heavy machinery or driving. Fortunately, with cannabis, somebody that is too high is less likely to drive than somebody who is too drunk. But we don’t want anybody who is too high getting behind the wheel.

What do you when you’re not working?

I work all the time.

I woke up early this morning in Boston. I literally roll over, reach for my phone, put my phone to my ear, and it starts. And it goes until I pass out.

I used to work out a lot. I’ve been buried. I went running on Saturday. It didn’t go well. I ran slower. What I did to “improve” myself is then I got on a plane and went to Montreal.

There’s a window that I’ve got where I have to make all sorts of personal sacrifices, and unfortunately the people around me have to share in some of the sacrifices. So I don’t have the ability to make normal relationships like other people have.

I hope there’s some point when that ends. It has to.

[In relationships], you get told, “You don’t have time. You have to be emotionally available. You’re always working. You don’t put your computer down.” And you know what? It’s true.

I’ve always said I can do anything for two more years, and I’ve been saying that for a long time — a lot more than two years.

Problems aside, it’s cool to be a cannabis entrepreneur making big-money deals, right?

Yes. This mission is fun. And it’s purposeful. So there is something you get from it. It’s deeply fulfilling.

It’s actually really cool. We’re making history in a way that we didn’t fully anticipate. And every three months or so, there’s another major conversation we’re having that we never imagined we’d be having. And it just keeps happening.

It’s constant — and it’s fun.