'Know Your Customer & The Brand Will Follow': Neil Closner, CEO of MedReleaf

Neil Closner is CEO at MedReleaf, which produces a variety of medicinal cannabis products. 

What makes your company different from others in the cannabis space?

We believe that we are unique in a number of ways. Two areas stand out most. First we are unique in that we’re patient-centric. What that means is that we built our company around the patient. From day one, every decision we’ve made has been centred on the patient. We built a patient support team that is second to none. We have nurses on staff to help patients with their needs. We grow strains that we know – from years of data collection and analysis – help patients with their therapeutic needs. Our R&D department, we believe the largest in the industry, is focused on the patient.

When the recreational market opens in Canada, we’ll adopt a similar position with adult consumers and build brands around them and their needs. 

The second area that is important for us is the use of detailed data and analytics to drive continuous improvement in our operations, specifically cultivation. This is what has led to MedReleaf being able to achieve, what we believe to be, industry leading yields per sq/ft, on the order of 300 grams per sq/ft per year. 

How did you get into the cannabis space?

After a number of years as a senior executive at Mount Sinai Hospital, I was heading up an early-stage startup in the medical technology space when I was approached with the offer to start up a medical cannabis company. I was skeptical. It was prior to the regulations even being finalized and I really didn’t know much about the industry or the product. One of the lead investors suggested I visit Israel and see for myself how medical cannabis was changing lives of people there (Israel was much further ahead than most of the world at that point in time). I went for the visit, saw and heard incredible stories of how cannabis was improving the quality of life for so many people. I came away from that visit with a clear picture of how cannabis could change the face of health care and with an understanding of the misguided nature of the stigma surrounding cannabis. When I returned to Canada, I was convinced of cannabis’ benefits and jumped in with both feet.

Walk us through a normal day.

There really isn’t a normal day in this business at this time in our evolution; every day is different and exciting. On any given day I could be giving a media interview (we’re a public company now so there is more media time), getting briefed on new initiatives we’re working on, reviewing mail from patients, physicians and stakeholders or meeting with regulators and potential business partners.  

What has been your biggest lesson about working in cannabis, and in business in general?

Things change quickly. New opportunities come at us daily. Finding the right balance of pursuing a focused strategy while keeping an ear to the ground for unforeseen opportunities has been a significant lesson for all of us at MedReleaf to manage.

What do you see as your biggest opportunity?

I see our biggest opportunity is in product innovation. It is still early days of this industry and I see big, transformative change coming.

That aside, I see huge global opportunity.  The system here in Canada has given us such a head start that Canada really has the opportunity to be THE global leader in cannabis and that excites us all very much.

Do you have any thoughts or concerns about Sean Spicer’s statements indicating the Administration’s intention to crack down on recreational cannabis?

Not really.  We hope the US Federal government will come around on their position on cannabis to be in alignment with a growing number of US states. But in the interim, we’ll continue our focus on the Canadian market as well as other international opportunities as they open up.  

And recreational aside, the medical opportunities are so immense that I have enough to focus on in the short, medium and long term without giving much consideration to what the US government wants to do on the recreational side.

What sets you apart to make you a potential leader in cannabis?

We are leaders already. We command 19% of the Canadian market, executed the largest IPO in cannabis history, we’re profitable and we have a management team that is laser-focused on maintaining our leadership position. We built this leadership position on understanding the patient and the market better than others and we’ll continue to invest in doing so to help grow our leadership position in a recreational market, too.

What is the most frustrating aspect of the cannabis industry today?

I’m not sure anything is really frustrating. Exciting and dynamic for sure. But we’re too busy to really spend time being frustrated with anything. We’d like to see more clarity on how the Canadian recreational market will evolve but that has to make its way through the legislative process. And we’d also like to see the federal government’s proposed marketing and promotion guidelines treat cannabis more like alcohol than they currently appear to be leaning.

What are the biggest challenges of being a publicly offered cannabis company?

I suspect they’re the same as the challenges associated with any public company but in our case, the industry is so hot right now that we get a lot of extra attention. Nonetheless, for us the focus has always been on the patient, on creating enduring shareholder value and discipline in continuing to reinforce the pillars of our competitive advantage.   

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the cannabis space?

I’d tell them to look at the businesses that support cannabis brands like ourselves. Think about all the ancillary services that we need – that any business needs – and find one where you can carve out a unique sales proposition.

What are your biggest tips for branding cannabis?

No tips, per se. Branding is a science as much as it is an art. Know your customer and the brand will follow. I’d also say that a brand is about a lot more than a logo. Your entire company needs to live the brand promise, you need to build a company around the consumer. But that’s the same as in any business.

Do you see any big changes coming in the future of cannabis?

In Canada, we have a recreational market opening up in less than a year and that will be a big change. Being part of what will be the world’s second legal national market is exciting and presents tremendous opportunity.  

Do you consume cannabis? And if so, what's your favorite way to consume?

I’m neither a consumer nor a patient. I’ve never consumed recreationally – it’s true! - and I’m fortunate to be in great health so have never needed for therapeutic reasons. If I needed it for health reasons, I absolutely would use it without hesitation and members of my immediate family are patients of ours and benefit from its use greatly. When it becomes legal recreationally, I might be inclined to give it a try...

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