Cannabis giant Canopy's CEO goes on media blitz to ease concerns

Investor dissatisfaction tanks company's stock

By Alicia Wallace, CNN Business
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(CNN) - The CEO of the world's biggest cannabis company is on what might be termed an "everyone calm down" tour this week.

Canopy Growth interim CEO Mark Zekulin on Thursday packed in nine media interviews -- including one with CNN Business -- as part of his company's efforts to push back against a wave of investor dissatisfaction that has tanked its stock in recent months. His message: The Canadian cannabis giant is playing the long game, and the billions it has invested in infrastructure and R&D over the past five years will soon pay off.

"We have been in construction for 70 months," Zekulin said. "We have four months left on that expansion plan."

In recent quarters, Wall Street has walloped Canopy -- the stock is down about 50% since April -- as the company missed expectations because of the slow-to-develop Canadian recreational cannabis market, higher-than-expected stock compensation expenses, and a C$1.2 billion charge related to its acquisition of US cannabis firm Acreage Holdings.

Research and development costs related to the company's pending "cannabis 2.0" launch of chocolates, beverages and vaping products also have taken a toll. (Even after the recent tumble, the company remains the biggest publicly traded cannabis firm by market cap at $9.2 billion, however.)

In July, Canopy founder Bruce Linton said he was fired from his post as co-CEO. Zekulin, a longtime Canopy employee who served as co-CEO, took over the full role but plans to leave once a new chief executive is named. That search process is ongoing, he said.

For now, Canopy remains on track to be efficient in its operations and maintain a market share in the 25% to 33% range, Zekulin said.

"The [Canadian] market will continue to grow, and we will continue to grow with it," he said.

Under Linton, Canopy acquired operations across the globe; invested in medical cannabis research; partnered with Martha Stewart to create pet products; converted a former vacuum cleaner plant in New York for hemp processing; and funneled billions into the development of cannabis beverages, edibles and vaping products.

That wide-reaching strategy and those efforts haven't changed since Linton's departure, Zekulin said.

"A lot of that work is now done, and the real focus is taking the chess board that we've set and really focusing on now executing," he said.

Following the launch of recreational cannabis sales in Canada in October 2018, Canopy has had some issues with poor execution and burning cash at higher than expected rates, said Andrew Carter, an analyst with Stifel.

During this initial stage, Canopy ceded growth in Canada by not having production come on-line as expected and betting heavily on gel caps and oils, he said, noting the country's industry is 90% dominated by cannabis flower (or bud).

A big test for Canopy comes this winter when Canada allows for the sale of consumable products such as cannabis chocolates and vapes.

"(Canopy) could do bad in this and still be OK long term, quite frankly," Carter said, referencing the C$3.1 billion in cash on Canopy's balance sheet and the support of investor Constellation Brands, the New York-based alcohol company that owns 38% of Canopy.

"But for their story and for investor enthusiasm, they have to come out well in this market," Carter said.

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