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Botani Managing Director Alex Boone Oversees the Cannabis Subsidiary of a 400-Year-Old Paper Company | Cannabis Business Executive – Cannabis and Marijuana industry news

This article is the first in an ongoing series, From Mainstream to Cannabis, that asks cannabis executives to talk about their personal and professional journey to the industry. Perspective is everything when it comes to Botani, the recently launched offshoot of Schweitzer-Mauduit International (SWM), a producer of papers, films, nets, and nonwovens used around the…
The post Botani Managing Director Alex Boone Oversees the Cannabis Subsidiary of a 400-Year-Old Paper Company appeared first on Cannabis Business Executive – Cannabis and Marijuana industry news.

This article is the first in an ongoing series, From Mainstream to Cannabis, that asks cannabis executives to talk about their personal and professional journey to the industry.

Perspective is everything when it comes to Botani, the recently launched offshoot of Schweitzer-Mauduit International (SWM), a producer of papers, films, nets, and nonwovens used around the world in a variety of products, applications, and industries, including cannabis. The SWM story begins in the auspicious year of 1545, when its first paper mill, Papeteries de Malaucene, began operations in the south of France. A timeline on the company website informs the visitor, “From the beginning, SWM works with hemp fibers to make paper, starting a long tradition of botanical manufacturing.” Quelle joie de vivre! As a frame of reference, the Jamestown Settlement was not founded for another 62 years, giving SWM plenty of time to plot its domination of the vast resource-rich land that would become the Americas. Today’s SWM, which trades on the NYSE, was formally founded in 1995 and is headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia, as is Botani.

With an uninterrupted history of commerce like that, I was sorely humbled to be able to speak with someone from this company, and especially someone like Botani Managing Director Alex Boone, whose experience opening new markets for SWM spanned 20-plus years, during which he held a number of titles, including Global Account Manager, Director of Sales, North America, and Director Alternative Markets, to name a few. I had no clue what to expect regarding Boone’s mainstream-to-marijuana story, which was more of an internal move than a move into cannabis, where, it turns out, SWM already had deep roots.

“I think it almost goes back to when I started with SWM International, back when I joined this industry,” said Boone, when asked why cannabis. “My parents had passed away and I went to my aunt and told her what I was going to do, and she goes, ‘You’re going to Big Tobacco? I can’t believe you’re going to Big Tobacco.’ You have to understand the context. She is very blue state. Blue, blue state versus red state. I said, ‘Don’t worry, not only are we doing cigarette papers and roll your own papers, but we also sell Bible paper, So, I can confess my sins as I’m selling to Big Tobacco. She got a kick out of that, so I got the approval to come in.

“So,” he continued, “if you look at the legacy that we’re bringing to this industry, it goes back as we’ve explained 400 plus years – and that’s in a variety of different aspects of paper – and rolling papers definitely for almost two centuries. We’ve been a part of this industry for a long time, just not all in; kind of a toe in. We’re selling rolling papers for tobacco in Europe, and indirectly these are going into cannabis consumers, but it’s not a legal market.”

Using so-called tobacco rolling papers for cannabis has of course been de rigueur for as long as papers have existed, and I wondered if we know some of those brands well. “Absolutely,” said Boone, raising my hopes only to immediately dash them. “Many of our customers have asked to remain anonymous about the supply of their base paper, but we’re in a lot of brands that make the world tick.”

I noted with astonishment the number of rolling paper brands on the market. “It is astonishing,” said Boone. “We probably had a 55-60 percent share of the base paper on roll-your-own alone before we came up with the idea for Botani, and the reason we did it is because we needed to be all-in, cannabis-facing.”

As big as SWM was, it was a question mark for many start-up cannabis companies. “One of the things we realized was that despite our success, despite what we’d done with Altria or British American Tobacco or any of the big guys, nobody knew who we were in this industry,” said Boone. “It’s very consumer focused, and very different. It’s also very anti-tobacco, and from that perspective we wanted to create a brand that resonated not only with the cannabis industry but resonated with the products that we’re making and what we specialize in, that Botani represents the processing of natural fibers, and focusing in on the specifics of cannabis. So, Botani makes hemp wraps, hemp filters, and hemp papers, and a variety of different products that go into the different components that our customers can make, all based on that natural aspect.”

I asked Boone if essentially creating a new company out of one that already existed made the move smoother. “From a right to play perspective, you’re absolutely right, we did have a right to play because we were already directly involved in the industry,” he said. “We have a process we use to make our botanical papers, and we knew that we could take any kind of plant material and make it into papers for this market at scale.”

That’s the key, he added. “At scale, not just a bespoke in a lab somewhere. While there are some small, handcrafted papermakers out there, this is to scale by taking our assets, bringing a product in that’s now legal, and creating a similar type of paper directly for this industry.”

Finally, we were getting to the seed of the idea. “The first thought came to me in 2014,” said Boone, “back when Colorado went legal. But, knowing full-well that Colorado was based not on industrial hemp but THC-based cannabis, it was a no-no. We were a public corporation trading on the New York Stock Exchange, so legality is very important. We started whispering about it again in 2018. We’d gotten hints of the 2019 Farm Bill, and [I made] a pitch in mid- to late-fall to the general counsel. I felt that was the very first thing to do, to see – if the country’s legal and we’re legal doing what we’re doing – what the appetite for this was from a corporate perspective. They’re like, ‘If it’s legal and the market demands it, bingo, let’s go.’ So, that’s kind of how I got started.”

The barn door was opened. “It only took from October 2018 until March of 2019 to have big concepts in hand to show customers at trade shows,” recounted Boone. “That gives you an idea of how quickly it went once we had the green light, and the ability to go to scale was only a few months after that.”

Building on SWM’s extensive reach around the world, I assumed Botani would proceed as an international company out of the gate. “It is definitely an international company,” concurred Boone. “We’re not going to keep anything here just for North America. Our breadth is wide based on our customer base and the knowledge of the people out there in the industry, but we do have a whole new genre of people, startups, whether the dispensaries, the MSOs, the farms themselves, new players who want tobacco alternatives – a stick that mimics a cigarette but is not made out of any kind of tobacco; is tobacco and nicotine free – and being able to use our processes to do that. We have some new customer bases coming in, and a lot are startups, but some of our long-term customers are launching new products into the market and trying to move into this space as well.”

The Leap into Cannabis

Returning to the theme of the series, I asked Boone what his personal experience has been like moving from a company culture built on 400 years of established business practices to an industry environment in which some parts are still very wild west.

“Well, I think you probably hit it there,” he replied. “An established business that’s been around for a long time, like tobacco, dealing with big customers and established markets, with no forecast because you know what’s going to hit, and you’ve got big, long-term contracts. So, it becomes about managing the business, and not necessarily going out and getting new stuff all the time. This is totally different. People that are startups, people who need advice about how to start a brand. It’s also definitely different having to temper expectations internally as a large corporation that’s used to having a roadmap that is crystal clear, to having a roadmap that is not necessarily as clear from a numbers perspective but having a path and a plan to get you there anyway.

For me personally,” he continued, “I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve said this in the video on the homepage of the website, and I encourage people to go look at it, [to learn] about the history of where we produce these papers here in New York, and the entrepreneurial spirit that you have to have. And you have to know that as a sales professional, you’re going to get ‘no’ most of the time, and that one out of 20 [sales pitches] is going to hit. But you have to keep trying and keep going. And I think what’s unique is that we’ve gone from a few customers in tobacco to multiple customers, and you have to stay extended like that in order to make sure that your products are getting out there, the story’s being told, and that people understand what you’re trying to do with their brand. Not my brand, but their brand.”

I asked what it was like working in a highly enthusiastic industry with a very potent hobbyist component to it, people who are extremely passionate about the plant and the accoutrements that go with it, and spend a lot of money on them, but are not really in the industry.

“What we are trying to do with Botani is to allow brand owners to reach out to some of those folk,” said Boone. “There are a lot of products that are out there that are ‘me, too,’ and a lot of brands that are just ‘me, too.’ It’s the same thing in a different package. But we’re bringing something crafty and new and different, and truly, the quality has spoken for itself. The sensory aspect is so different that people are very attuned to the positive aspects of what we’re bringing to market. So that’s where part of my patience becomes impatient because I want more people to truly understand that and to start driving their brands to market. But I know the product is going to speak for itself as we move forward.”

As I anticipated, Botani sources from a variety of farms. “We have full chain of custody from the farm through extraction companies, so a variety folks from Oregon to Colorado to Kentucky, just depending,” explained Boone. “We also have a very strict protocol with regard to what we want in our raw material, and we reject a lot versus accepting anything and everything. As you know, California is pretty darn strict on the dispensaries and what metals and pesticides can be sold, so we’re very cautious about that. We also know that early on in planting of any kind of crop such as this, that hemp is known as a cleaning crop, and you’ve got to be very careful. The root stock is much deeper, and we’ve got to be careful about our raw materials. So, we source from a variety of people, and put them under a contract that allows us to be comfortable on the supply chain aspect of things.

In terms of the largest players in the industry, the biggest MSOs, it seems like they would be a natural fit as partners for Botani. I asked Boone if he considers them both clients and partners.

“I would say they’re probably a little bit of both,” he answered. “A large MSO probably doesn’t have the capability to produce, say, a cone, for themselves. Their specialty is retail. So, although we might pitch those guys on a specific type of product they can offer in their shops, we’re going to help recommend what that converter is going to be, and we work in partnership with both the converter and the brand owner, which would be a large MSO, to make sure they’re getting what they want, when they want.”

As we wound up our conversation, I asked Boone about the directions Botani might go in, and whether they would ever consider making their own cannabis containers or other, similar products.

“You mean like a packet?” asked Boone. “It’s not to say that we wouldn’t. We are also in the business of making hemp pulp and pulp available for papermakers around the globe. We do that from our facilities over in France, and we have the capability to take that pulp and bring it to the packaging experts who have the equipment to make heavier weight paper. We’re lightweight specialists.

“To bring that kind of solution to market somehow, someway, is something I’d like to think is the future potential from our perspective, “he added. “Immediate here in 2022? Probably not, but it’s certainly something that we want to work towards for the future.”

The post Botani Managing Director Alex Boone Oversees the Cannabis Subsidiary of a 400-Year-Old Paper Company appeared first on Cannabis Business Executive – Cannabis and Marijuana industry news.

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