The Big Read

    The inner turmoil of cannabis tech company Lift & Co.

    Illustration by Annissa Malthaner
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    The year before Lift & Co. went public, its staff tried to overthrow the company’s CEO, Matei Olaru. A group of employees—more than a third of Lift’s workforce at the time—signed a letter detailing their concerns with Olaru’s ability to run the cannabis company. Since he took the helm a year earlier, Lift had been troubled by a revolving door of employees, and an increasingly vocal group of discontented staff who remained at the company. Worried Olaru was jeopardizing the company’s shot at success, employees devised a plan to correct course.

    The letter demanding his resignation cited concerns about his ability to lead, “including, but not limited to your repeated demonstrations of: dishonesty, failure to follow process, failure to heed expert advice or data, lack of transparency, financial incompetence, favouritism, deceit, manipulation, harassment, bullying, inexperience and gender discrimination,” reads the document that circulated the Lift office, collecting signatures, in October 2017.

    “If you do not step down into a role more suitable to your abilities, and resign as CEO of Lift by Tuesday, October 31 at 5pm, we will be forced to take our numerous and detailed concerns to the board.”

    The staff circulating the letter wanted to get all employees’ support. While trying to convince others to back the CEO’s ouster, Olaru got wind of the plan.

    Fresh out of law school with little experience managing people or businesses, the young CEO had parachuted to the top of Lift & Co. The events and media company has since become a linchpin in Canada’s fast-growing cannabis sector, an authority on regulation and the brand behind North America’s biggest events in the trade.

    Less than a year into his leadership, though, Olaru was losing his staff’s confidence. As a last-ditch effort to make amends, he appealed for forgiveness.

    At an emergency all-hands meeting, called for October 30, Olaru said he regretted neglecting employees’ concerns and acknowledged he needed to do better, according to several people who attended the meeting. He promised to give lower-paid staff salary increases and offered everyone stock options in the company. He would put a greater emphasis on culture, he said, and pledged to improve employee morale.

    “If you weren’t paying attention, you might actually think he was apologetic,” says one former employee who attended the meeting.

    “It was this real crocodile-tears speech,” says another former staffer.

    Despite their doubts around Olaru’s sincerity, the staff dropped the planned coup. Some of them did get their promised pay bumps, but the company’s culture continued to spiral.

    The Logic spoke with 13 current and former employees about their experience at Lift. Most of them asked not to be named, as they signed confidentiality agreements while working at the company. Others worried speaking could hurt their reputation or job prospects in the industry, and one former employee said she didn’t want her name linked to Lift in online search results. The interviews paint a picture of a toxic work environment characterized by erratic business strategies, pay inequity and financial missteps. According to most of the employees, at the root of the company’s woes is a leader guided by a destructive combination of inexperience and micromanagement.

    The Logic requested an interview with Olaru and the company’s founder, Tyler Sookochoff, over several weeks. Neither agreed to be interviewed and the company declined multiple requests to answer written questions. “We do not have a response at this time,” said Sara McMillen, director of communications at Lift.

    Since the company went public in a reverse takeover in September 2018, its stock has suffered from low trading volumes and its market cap has dropped more than 60 per cent since it peaked the day after going public. And, less than six months after cannabis legalization promised a new era of prosperity for Lift, two members of its four-person executive team had left.

    Still, its public profile is soaring. Since legalization, the company has secured government contracts in partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to train cannabis retail workers across the country. And, its roster of Lift-branded cannabis events, which attract tens of thousands of people each year, continues to grow. The company is teeing up its next Lift Expo in Toronto this June with Canadian Cannabis Week, a series of pop-up events across Canada, including one hosted by The Economist focused on investment opportunities in cannabis.

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