Cannacurio Podcast Episode 35 with Bryan Passman of Hunter + Esquire

In the latest episode of the Cannacurio Podcast from Cannabiz Media, I speak with Bryan Passman, CEO and Founder of Hunter + Esquire, a full-service, retained executive recruitment and human capital advisory firm focused solely on the cannabis and psychedelics industries.

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Cannacurio Podcast Episode 35 Transcript

Ed Keating: This is a Cannacurio podcast by Cannabiz Media, your source for cannabis and hemp licensed news directly from the Data Vault. So welcome to the Cannacurio podcast powered by Cannabiz Media. And I’m your host Ed Keating. On today’s show we’re joined by Bryan Passman, CEO and Founder of Hunter and Esquire, a retained executive search firm. Bryan, welcome to the show.

Bryan Passman: Thank you, Ed. Really happy to be here with you. Thanks for having me.

Ed Keating: Excellent. So tell us a little bit about Hunter and Esquire and when did you start it and why?

Bryan Passman: Yes. Also happy 420.

Ed Keating: Happy 420 as well. Yeah, can’t forget that.

Bryan Passman: Right. All right. Hunter and Esquire, a retained search firm serving the cannabis industry. We launched Q3 2017. It was really a culmination of life’s work. Feel like something I’d trained my whole life for. 

I’ve spoken before about my relationship with the plant. I’m sort of a consumption veteran and definitely a veteran of retained search. And we had a lot of friends. We being my wife and I over the years that we had made in the industry. 

And my last gig, working in food and beverage CPG, it just started becoming more and more abundantly clear that there was this unmet need. There’s a lot of industry specific service providers that exist. I know, you know that, Ed. Serving the cannabis industry’s needs.

And at the time we gathered ourselves to launch, we understood that there wasn’t really a retained search, white glove talent acquisition provider serving the industry. So we decided to leverage lots of years of experience to serve the industry, because it was exciting to be a part of this industry, supporting the plant that we love so much. 

And really how many times in our lifetime do we get to be a part of the creation of a new industry? Every day is exciting. It’s so much fun. And yeah, we’ll talk more about that, but that’s why we’re here.

Ed Keating: Excellent. Excellent. So dive into a little bit about some of the former industries that you served and how that experience plays into the type of searches that you may do now.

Bryan Passman: Yeah, so I began my search career almost 22 years ago in the medical device sector, and I spent 15 years there. So that was recruiting very technical and operational leaders all over the world for small, medium and large medical device companies. And some biotech and in vitro diagnostics work. But helping companies get off the ground, building their clinical and regulatory teams as they look for approvals, or helping them turn things around or just level up talent. 

So that was great because we spent a lot of time, obviously, in a FDA regulated space and really got firsthand knowledge of how important it is to operate with a compliance mindset and to be above board. A lot of our clients would become our clients after they got in trouble with the FDA, be it a warning letter or worse, a consent decree. So building corporate compliance teams around the world for companies, among other things also, was a lot of fun.

And then, I did go spend just under three years in food and beverage CPG with a big focus in the adult beverage space. Lots of similarities to our industry with a lot of state-by-state market differences and the three tier system and supply chain distribution challenges. So, it was really a nice compliment, as it turned out, to work in that field. 

And now, three and a half years into working in the cannabis space, our clients have leveraged our industry backgrounds in all kinds of ways. Certainly we have a lot of clients that like the CPG connectivity because of the similarities, but we’ve had some really good clients leverage our life science industry backgrounds. Those clients that are very tuned in to being compliant and building organizations that are legalization and FDA ready. 

And then we have others on the team that have more of a retail and hospitality and IT background because we have clients, of course, in tech within cannabis and other verticals within, what I call, the cannabis economy.

Ed Keating: It’s interesting on the compliance side with the focus, because in other regulated industries I’ve worked in, some people just do the calculus and say, “I’ll pay the fine.” That doesn’t happen in cannabis because you lose a license or lose a whole lot more, so you can’t be casual about it. And so the fact that you can bring that to bear as you do your searches for clients, I think has to be an enormous help to them.

Bryan Passman: Yeah. Well, there’s the old adage of, if you think it’s expensive to be compliant, just wait till you find out how expensive it is to be out of compliance. And that, to your point, holds especially true in this industry. You pay the ultimate price really, which is exiting from the industry, really.

Ed Keating: Yeah. So this is similar, we had an expression for the software high penalties for non-compliance basically provide great opportunities for publishing and information firms too. So now one of the other unique things about your firm is that your COO and co-founder is your spouse. So what is that like? I mean, that’s pretty neat to be able to found a company with your spouse and run it for a number of years successfully.

Bryan Passman: It’s great. Jessica is my wife, we’ve been married 13 years now. We have two kids together. It’s really, for sure, challenging raising kids and running a business in this industry together, but great. 

We like to talk about our obsession for the work that we do, and we really truly are obsessed. It’s an around the clock effort and I was riding with someone today. I think it’s really true, if you’re bringing all your passion and grind and get out the right way and really thriving at a good level in this industry, it’s a family effort. Your family becomes a part of it. The people in your house, they’re a part of your cannabis industry career. So really just having my wife formally, officially, a part of it makes it that much better. 

She’s a lawyer. It’s great to have her to lean on for contracts and back of the house that she manages. I know we’re set there. I don’t have to touch it. I hate that stuff. It’s perfect. But she’s more than that. She’s connected in the industry. And we like to talk about this Venn diagram of connectivity we have in the industry, because I’ve got a bunch of people out here that I know that she doesn’t have a relationship with, and she’s got her people, but there’s always that crossover. 

And it’s fun to compare notes and not really have an interruption in the workflow. So it’s whether it’s over breakfast, lunch, and dinner or 5:00 AM or late at night or weekends, we can talk about it. And I think a lot of people in this industry, actually I know it, there’s a lot of leaders in this industry that go through a lot on a regular basis.

And they don’t always have people to commiserate with, to share their struggle with, especially the men and women at very high places. As a CEO or whatever, it may be in one of these businesses, it’s sometimes a very lonely place and you can’t speak about the struggle. And when you get home, it’s hard to really unpack it all and put context around the challenge. So having your spouse, if you can manage through the challenge, because of course you can get burned out. 

And at certain point in time, you just have to say, look, no more work talk. Let’s just be a family and have fun. But having her know what I’m up to and knowing what she’s up to, it makes those work conversations easier and being in it together to support each other, it’s a big help.

Ed Keating: That’s very true. And that part about the family being part of it definitely resonates. My college-aged son is a big fan of all the Cannabiz Media swag, be it the shirts, be it the mugs, even has a fanny pack, which is a limited edition. So he’s all set. But definitely likes the swag. 

So let’s transition a bit from the firm and look out at this industry that we both work in. So, here we are 13 months into the pandemic, how has this affected recruiting? I’m sure most of your interviews are now like this, video as opposed to meeting people for coffee or whatnot. But what else has happened in the last 13 months to affect the recruiting space?

Bryan Passman: Yeah. Yeah. Well, certainly interviewing changed a lot. You don’t have a lot of people getting relocated around the industry to begin with. So almost two decades of search in my past lives was moving people around and ex-pat assignments included. 

So, leading up to the pandemic hitting, we were already two and a half years into it and had adjusted to searching more locally for our clients. So there wasn’t that much of a geographic issue with relocating people around, but certainly, this industry relies heavily on the relationship and the feel and the trust factor. 

And it was a lot easier pre-pandemic to schedule interviews in person and just connect people up or say, “Hey, Ed’s going to be at this trade show.” Because we know there was a show every other day of the year. Ed’s going to be at the show. Instead of Zooming with him in a few days, just go find him at the booth and hang out with him or he’s going to have lunch or a drink with you later.

There was a lot of that, just easy peasy interview setup. So pivoting to virtual interviewing, especially for ops leader roles. It was interesting during the pandemic, filling actually a facility director and other ops leader roles like sight unseen candidate, not going to the facility to tour it. The team not meeting that person in the facility. That was a challenge for sure, but credit to our clients who were willing to get creative with it. 

And there were all kinds of fun ways where we had people Zooming outside of normal work hours, demanding that cameras must be on and helping people understand where they work from and get a feel of their style. And having some times, if it was a weekend conversation, saying, “Hey, I’m going to have my kid with me. You have kids, feel free to have your kid.” Or we had spouses tagalong for Zoom happy hour conversations as part of the interview process. 

So challenging for sure, but we got it done. It was less quantity of search first half of last year. So I won’t perpetrate it was a lot of that. It was a fair amount, but the reality is hiring slowed down during that time, as we know. And there was a lot of rightsizing going on. But I’d say by late July, hiring came back in a good way for us. And it’s been a lot of that. In the more recent months people have been vaccinated and the pandemic fatigue sets in and people are getting out in more safe ways.

So we have a lot of people going on interviews now just masked up and some candidates ask for COVID protocols by the company just to make sure that things are safe. And, for the most part, our clients have great strategic HR leaders in place, and they have good COVID protocols. So it’s gotten a lot easier recently, and thankfully, it’s easy to, not like in the original pandemic days, when it was tough to get your hands on some masks. Everyone’s masked up with ease now. So we just put on a mask and go on the interview.

Ed Keating: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because you touched on something that we noticed too, and probably starting almost in the late summer of ’19 until the fall, when certain companies started to have problems where they got overextended. They tried to build too many stores, they got ahead of their skis. And we started hearing at conferences about how important it was to be operationally strong and whatnot. 

So that downsizing and contraction you talked about, was going on before we even got to last March. So in some ways it prepared us for it, a little bit, in that things were different. I mean, our business definitely got interesting. That was the last MJBiz show that we all went to where there were 35,000 people, but that may have been the peak before the valley that set in. But glad to hear that things have come back.

Bryan Passman: Yeah. Thanks. And credit to you guys, and I’ll pat ourselves on the back as well. I know the Cannabiz team operates lean. You don’t need a lot of overhead and fancy offices to woo or wow your customers. Same as us. 

Being a recruiter through the ’08 recession, when 70% of my competition went out of business, taught me a good lesson. And when we launched this, I just said, look, we don’t need fancy offices on Miami Beach. If people come visit us down here, we’ll take them out. Or you rent a space. So not a lot of overhead and that helped. 

We know a lot of cannabis businesses spent a lot on fancy offices and office furniture and the best real estate. Just to say, look at us in New York City or Hollywood Beach, or what have you. And I’m sure it pays off here and there, but for us, it wasn’t worth it. And credit to you guys for going that route as well and just focusing on hiring good people.

Ed Keating: Yeah. Thanks. No, I appreciate that. Now, in terms of the kind of roles that you’re filling, you touched on this a little bit before, but I’m curious about this dynamic of people coming in from outside the industry. I imagine with roles like accounting and some operations, they may not very much ministry to industry. Or CPG where we’re seeing branding. What roles are being filled up more by outside, let’s say, than by inside, if that makes sense?

Bryan Passman: Yeah. Yeah. Well, certainly more of your roles being filled internally are plant touching. So there’s always going to be a place for your legacy growers and trimmers and all plant touching folks that this industry was built on the shoulders of. But, after that, and really including that, because you can hire great ag and horticultural talent from the mainstream to those roles as well. 

It’s really more of a company preference, I’d say. We have clients, MSOs and otherwise, that are very medicinally-oriented and they love looking at a lot of talent from the life science space. And those are more of your east coast clients typically. And hiring companies out west that are more focused on adult use. We’ll leverage more of our connectivity in food and adult beverage.

And there’s everything in between. You have a lot of other highly-regulated industries like gaming. We’ve brought talent in from the gaming space. So I think it’s a compliance mindset and a passion for getting in the industry, and then just the deepest possible set of functional experiences in that given role. 

So if it’s your controller getting the most accounting experience possible, or your head of marketing and so on and so forth. And then really just finding the right culture contributor, who’s going to fit into whatever culture you’ve built or are building at your company and are going to add to that in the right way. So measuring fit really well, just beyond just matching paper to role description.

Ed Keating: So what about the drivers? What’s bringing people into the industry? We started in 2015, you started in 2017. I think the dynamics were very different then because it was really early days and some people were in way before we were. Like in 2010, I think, was the first MJBiz show out in Vegas, or it might’ve been Colorado that first year. So, different early adopters coming in, but what’s bringing people to the industry now? Is it just something cool? Because I think the green rush, quote unquote, has probably passed.

Bryan Passman: Yeah. Oh gosh, there’s all kinds of right reasons to want to enter the industry. I say there’s really a very short list only of wrong reasons, such as well, I just think it’s going to be fun or cool just to hang around weed all day. 

This is not an easy industry to thrive in and we hear it all from, I’m a medical patient or my family member is a medical patient, or it helped my loved one in their final days with their battle with cancer, just to find some comfort and go off easily. To the business opportunity or the excitement of being part of building a new industry. 

A lot of candidates we bring into the industry now are long time investors that have made a lot of money off of some of their investments. And they’re saying, wow, okay. I want to go work at one of these companies and hold a lot of equity in a company I work for. So really the reasons run the gamut. 

And then now, we place a lot of what we call the unicorn candidate, which are those people that have already entered years ago from their mainstream CPG or life science or other industry career. And a lot of cannabis businesses hiring now want all of that blue chip company experience, all the deep leadership and functional experience, but the recent cannabis industry experience, because there’s a lot of uniqueness in this industry. 

If nothing else it’s just, you’re hiring someone that already knows what they’re getting into, their eyes wide open coming and understanding that yes, everyone’s working hard. This is America. We all work hard. But I do believe that companies in this space that thrive at a high level.

I think those men and women are working harder than their peers in other industries. It’s just, the challenges are so unique. So you get that. Plus, if it’s a finance role, you got the 280E or the absorption accounting that MSO is like and other specific skills. And just knowledge of the landscape, just knowing what MSO versus an SSO is. 

And having some connectivity to leverage. If you’re a brand builder, if you’re working in the space, hopefully having connections at Cannabiz or MJBiz or the NCIA, just to build a brand and become a part of panels in all these virtual shows that we have now too.

Ed Keating: Yeah. Yeah. I know. It’s interesting because anybody who’s listened to the Cannacurio podcast has heard us talk about some of the market segmentation that we see. Cannaserious, people who are in this industry and only in this industry, like us. Cannacurious, people who want to get in, or maybe they think that they can take their business of, let’s say, labeling and just bring it into the business. And then finally Cannaclueless, people who don’t know what they don’t know. I mean, it’s not a knock. It’s just, they’re ignorant because they haven’t learned enough yet. 

And I think that may, using that Venn diagram again over the candidate, some may fit in each of those buckets. But the Cannaserious ones are perhaps great ones to get if you can find them.

Bryan Passman: Yeah. Yeah. I think so. There’s a lot to be said for having a relationship with the plant. If you really have that personal relationship and probably a deeper appreciation for the plant, then it might help you just that much more on the really tough days in this industry, which are frequent. 

Because outside of that for the business opportunity, which I think is a completely valid reason, I won’t say you’re at a disadvantage, but without the relationship with the plant, I do think that intrinsic interest to thrive in this industry for other business reasons has to be obscenely strong, to fight through all of the challenges, which I know a lot of people in the space that lead really well and deal with all the stress and succeed. And they’ve never consumed ever. And they’re not a bad person.

 I think it’s great that they want to work in this industry despite not being consumers. I think they might have an easier time, perhaps, if they had a relationship with the plant, but I do not hold judgments.

Ed Keating: So I’m thinking about some of the dynamics that you often see with HR talent. Some industries, you get a lot of job switching happening or through M&As you get this aqui-hiring going on. Are you seeing those kind of trends, that we see in other industries, occurring here and now, or is it something that may happen as the industry grows and the economy comes back online?

Bryan Passman: Yeah. I say, acqui-hiring’s definitely trending. You have a lot of operators and brands that weren’t surviving well on their own, from the 2019 capital crunch, turning into the pandemic. And friends of mine that have pre-roll, edibles, you name it. Small mom and pop, one two shop operations that got gobbled up, but secured a spot with the company. 

And I think that’s a great trend because you don’t want that brain drain. You have a lot of intimate knowledge that comes with that operation or that brand. And so ideally you can keep the person that birthed that and got it to a certain place, and retain that good person, all their knowledge, as part of your operation. So it’s a win-win. 

Not ideal for some of those people to have to go sell part of their business when they didn’t want to, but better than the alternative. And I think it’s a good trend and a good way to keep this industry going without it just turning into just only the really well-capitalized survive.

Ed Keating: Right, right. Now, moving toward that strategy side of things. I always ask our guests, how do they segment the market? As you look across, what’s your standard segmentation in terms of how you look at the space? Is it MSOs, SSOs and everybody else, or is it geographical? How do you do it?

Bryan Passman: So, again, I speak about the cannabis economy and no, we don’t look at it geographically. We help, excuse me, we help clients all over the Americas and we’ve done work over in Europe as well. We almost did some work in the Middle East, which would have been fun, but didn’t. 

So I think, at a high level, we separate it by operators and brands and ancillary. So your service providers, your pick and shovel organizations. And then just trickling down there, we can subset brands into more of your patient-oriented versus more of your adult use-oriented and your operators. 

So we do segment MSO, SSO, or bulk producers. We’ve got some just big bulk producers that are serving the wholesale markets and then ancillary, which is everything. So that’s tech and other service providers.

So really, you’ve got a lot of different verticals in the cannabis space. And that’s why when people write to us and say, “Well, does my background look like a fit for the industry?” The answer is always, yes. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before. It doesn’t matter your skills, the industry, where you live. Yes, there’s a place for you in the industry. The trick is finding the right role with the right group and getting into it at the right time, which is definitely tricky. But yeah, there’s something for everyone.

Ed Keating: Great point and great guidance. Now what about the hemp and the CBD space? What we saw, from a licensing standpoint, is there was a great burgeoning of licenses in 2017, 2018. Everybody’s trying to make money from it. And then they overgrew, material is still sitting in barns, drying out from a couple of years ago. 

Licenses have declined as people are like, “Well, yeah, I don’t want to do that again.” But I’m curious from a hiring standpoint, are you seeing that because I’ve noticed some of the MSOs have a CBD brand in addition to, let’s say, a THC brand?

Bryan Passman: So, in our earlier days, we did serve some of the CBD-only producers in the space when it was less saturated. And we served a couple of the big names in their heydays before it got really saturated. We don’t have, at this time, any clients that are CBD-only. 

We certainly have brands and operators that are producing CBD-only, or CBD-dominant products, for sure. And they’re producing CBD ingredients for wholesale to the life science and the CPG and other industries, which is fun to help them grow in that way. But they’re also growing THC cannabis. 

So no, for us, we don’t purposefully steer clear of it, but I would agree that yeah, the CBD space is heavily saturated. So I don’t know if it, for us… I can’t say we’d get all the way excited about serving a group in that space that doesn’t have a strategic plan to grow more broadly.

And we’ve not done any work in hemp, not for lack of trying. I’d say we put minimal effort into working in the hemp space. It’s just for all of the different state-to-state regulation gyrations that cannabis companies deal with, really the rules are still fuzzy in the hemp space, really fuzzy. And that’s been a struggle for us and some of the companies that we speak to who are not sure yet really what investment they want to make into their business, because I think the future is still really unclear for them. So those…

Ed Keating: And then the dynamic that we see, just in looking at the data, is that it’s incredibly cultivation heavy. I mean, that’s where all the licenses are. That’s where all the activity seems to be. You don’t have that same linear move from grow to manufacturing and processing to a store necessarily. 

I mean, some places you do, like in Florida where they have 5,000 stores that are registered to sell CBD, but I don’t think it follows as smoothly because it’s regulated in different ways. So that definitely makes sense. 

So just wanted to ask the last industry-ish question. Given all your connections in the industry and whatnot, do you ever run into Cannabiz Media customers, and I’m curious what you’ve heard from them?

Bryan Passman: Yes. All the time. I’m shocked if I speak to someone who’s not a Cannabiz customer, to be honest. Look, you guys provide a great service. Nine out of 10 times it’s, “Yes, we’re a Cannabiz customer and we cannot live without our Cannabiz subscription.” 

There are some, I won’t name names, but there are some pick and shovel providers out there that don’t subscribe to Cannabiz, and their revenue generating people hate it. They cannot understand it for the life of them, because the amount of time they put in to building their attack plans, it’s such a waste. I mean, you guys are providing an amazing service, so yes. And it’s great to be friends with you guys because you’re doing good things for the industry.

Ed Keating: Awesome. Great. Well, thanks. I appreciate that because you’re obviously a well-connected person who has a lot of people in industry. Now, finally, looking ahead, which is something that we often like to do and expand on what’s going to happen. New and expanding markets. Everybody’s all excited, like New York, New Jersey, Arizona, New Mexico. It’s going to be big, let’s hope. 

What does that mean for you and when? Okay, so you’ve got some of these states that are coming along. Is that an opportunity for you yet? Or does it take time, as people are trying to figure out what kind of team they’re going to put on the ground there?

Bryan Passman: Yeah. For us here at Hunter Esquire, we’re fortunate that we have really strong relationships with some established players that have already been participating in some of these medical-only markets that are expanding and are well capitalized enough to try to get ahead of it on new markets. 

And so we’ve been busy with a lot of these market developments where it’s – okay, it’s about to get real. We’re going from four stores to eight in New York, or we’re expanding this way in Arizona, help us get a leader that’s got more horsepower behind them. Or we just created this new role because we know role creation in this industry is fast and furious. And yeah, we’ve been busy because of that, thankfully. 

It’s a more calculated and methodical approach for sure, which works well for us. We’re not just a resume mill. So we are very methodically looking for fit. So it’s not that hiring frenzy from years ago. But there’s a strong amount of hiring activity going on in those new markets. 

But I’d say it’s more from the established players that are well capitalized, that are not purely hiring for what it may be, but what they know it’s been and can sort of kind of predict where it’s going. It’s not dozens and hundreds of hires. It’s more of a leveling up of leadership. We need more stronger finance or operations or other chops, or they’ve created regional retail leader verticals because storefront count is about to heavily increase. So, adding new roles has been a fun development for us.

Ed Keating: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I think as people do have to look at it strategically. And also, because we’ve talked about MSOs a lot on the podcast before, is that these companies are well capitalized, as you have pointed out. And they tend to be good at what the old international companies did in the past. They can export competencies, brands and people across borders. And that’s how they’re going to do a great job in the next state over. 

And now, as we start to look ahead, having talent that can run a region, let’s say. Even if the plant can’t cross the lines, the people can. And having somebody who’s in charge of that, I think, is going to be a big win for some of these companies as they can do things, as you and I both said, more strategically. So with that in mind, looking ahead, are there any trends that we should all be keeping a lookout for that you see that you can share with our listeners?

Bryan Passman: Definitely. So there is a lot more strategic HR leader hiring in the industry. So good news for everyone. It would probably shock many of your listeners to find out how many sizable publicly traded companies in this space do not have anyone or one single person maybe, at best, in their human resource organization. More strategic HR leader roles being created is a big, strong, positive trend. 

I’ll call them trends with the caveat, I hope they trend forever. Strong diversity, equity, inclusion focus, strong CSR focus, really good corporate social responsibility, things happening in the industry. I think what’s hot right now is the push for being more green and really looking at how cultivation and packaging waste and everything this industry does is actually terribly bad for the environment. 

So these are trends. And then just better hiring, again. Just smarter hiring, more accomplished leaders enter this industry by the hour. And with that, you get just better hiring practices, better understanding that turnover is expensive in all kinds of ways, and just hire smarter. 

And it’s not the friends and the family or the person I trust because they were cool to hang out with at this event. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a skills, attributes, fit contest to make the right hire. And that’s been trending for a while now. And it’s only getting better. 

So, with that, the industry will professionalize more effectively and we’ll all be better off because we are going to be legal sometime soon. And we just, not this year, for sure. Not making any predictions like that, but we’re moving towards that. And we need to have as many accomplished leaders working effectively with legacy cannabis industry folks, for sure. We want that balance.

But the more professionalizing of the industry we get, the easier it is to attract talent because people are watching. They’re consuming, they’re investing, they’re watching, they want jobs in the space. And the role and risk their career is entering under federal prohibition, but they want to do it with a high level of confidence. Yeah. 

Ed Keating: Well, great points to end this with. Bryan, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bryan Passman: Thank you for having me. You made my 420 extra special. Thanks, Ed.

Ed Keating: Excellent. So I’m your host Ed Keating, stay tuned for more updates from the Data Vault.

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