Last year was supposed to when marijuana stocks put the pedal to the metal and proved to Wall Street that they were wholly deserving of their premium valuations. The stage certainly appeared set with Canada selling adult-use cannabis and on track to launch derivative pot products later in the year, and a number of U.S. states leaning in favor of legalization.
But when the curtain closed on 2019, it was a huge disappointment for most cannabis investors. Marijuana stocks ended the year mired in a nine-month downtrend that was sparked by supply issues in Canada and pricing struggles in key U.S. markets. Both factors allowed the black market to thrive and left pot stocks to fight among the scraps.
Aurora Cannabis' failure to land a partnership in 2019 was a major disappointment
But these broad-based issues don't encompass everything that went wrong in 2019. For instance, cannabis partnerships didn't materialize as expected. Sure, Canopy Growth and Cronos Group snagged major equity investors, but Aurora Cannabis (NYSE:ACB), which was widely expected to land an equity investor or at worst a major derivative development partner, failed to do so.
Aurora's inability to land an equity investor was surprising on three fronts. First, the company hired billionaire activist investor Nelson Peltz as a strategic advisor in March 2019. Petlz's expertise as an activist investor has historically been among the food and beverage industry. This would seemingly make him the perfect individual to bridge the gap between cannabis and traditional consumer-packaged food and beverage companies.
Second, Aurora Cannabis was, until recently, widely considered to be the front-runner to lead in global weed production. The company's 15 cultivation farms were expected to combine for at least 625,000 kilos by the end of its fiscal 2020 (June 30, 2020), which would have been tops in the industry. Aurora also has a presence in 24 countries outside of Canada, which is tops among domestic producers.
Third, and finally, Aurora (supposedly) had discussions with major players in the food and beverage industry. In September 2018, it was reported that Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) was in discussion with Aurora Cannabis about a potential tie-up, with the goal of creating a line of cannabidiol (CBD)-based beverages. CBD is the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid best known for its perceived medical benefits. Ultimately, though, Coca-Cola's interest in Aurora fizzled, with the two sides walking away without an equity investment or partnership. While it's unclear what caused Coca-Cola to walk away from the negotiating table, it proved highly disappointing for Aurora's shareholders who've seen this stock take an absolute beating for nearly a year.
Does this board shake up suggest that a partnership is now a priority?
However, Aurora Cannabis' luck on the partnership front may soon change, as evidenced by its corporate shake up, announced in the first week of February.
The highlight of Aurora's overhaul was probably that longtime CEO Terry Booth stepped down from his lead position, or possibly that the company announced steep cost-reduction plans and new debt covenants. But buried among this plethora of news events was the announcement that the company would expand its board by bringing two new independent directors on board.
These two new directors, whose appointment investors probably glossed over, are certainly noteworthy for a few reasons. The first independent director, Lance Friedmann, has 25 combined years of experience working with Kraft Foods (now part of Kraft Heinz) and Mondelez International (NASDAQ:MDLZ). Mondelez just happens to be one of Nelson Peltz's largest holdings in his hedge fund, with Trian Fund Management owning 18.8 million shares, or 1.3% of Mondelez's outstanding shares.
The other newly appointed independent director, Michael Detlefsen, is a managing director of Pomegranate Capital Advisors. Pomegranate is "an active investor advisory firm with holdings in the branded consumer and business-to-business food sectors."
In other words, Aurora Cannabis now has two board members whose primary focus has been on food-based consumer-packaged goods (CPG), as well as Nelson Peltz as a strategic advisor, who's spent a lot of his time trying to influence the boards of food and beverage companies. It would appear that Aurora Cannabis is doing everything it can to be viewed as more appealing to food companies (hint, hint, Mondelez International), with the ultimate goal of securing an equity investment or partnership.
Don't be surprised if prospective CPG partners remain leery
Unfortunately, even these new appointments may not guarantee that Aurora Cannabis lands its as-of-now elusive partner.
For one, brand-name food and beverage companies have probably seen what happened to Altria Group and Constellation Brands (NYSE:STZ) following their respective investments in Cronos Group and Canopy Growth. Both companies have seen the value of their investment decline, with Constellation taking it on the chin. You see, Canopy Growth's massive operating losses have adversely affected Constellation Brands' income statement and dragged down the Modelo and Corona beer maker's profits. This likely makes other CPG businesses gun-shy about partnerships in the still-nascent pot industry.
The other major problem here is that Aurora Cannabis is no shoo-in to survive over the long run. The company's most recent quarterly report shows $156.3 million Canadian in cash and cash equivalents, and CA$26.1 million in marketable securities. That compares with projected liabilities of CA$373.6 million over the next 12 months, and close to CA$1.3 billion over the next five years. A brand-name company that partners with Aurora could see their entire investment go up in smoke.
There's little doubt that Aurora Cannabis is angling for an equity investor or partner in the CPG space. But landing that partner will remain difficult.