Fortune

WALL STREET’S CONTACT HIGH

Excitement about legal weed turned Canadian startup Tilray into one of the world’s hottest stocks—and turned its American founders into billionaires. As Big Cannabis goes mainstream, will the buzz wear off?

IT’S JUST AFTER 6, on a pitch-dark morning in December, and Brendan Kennedy is standing over the stove, wearing shorts and a vest, meditatively melting butter in a pancake pan. It will be nearly two hours before the sun cracks the Seattle sky, and Kennedy, toddler son in tow, already has the pensive look of a man trying hard to keep the creep of the workday ahead from encroaching on a family ritual.

See, morning is a sacred time for the 46-year-old CEO, who has two rules for starting the day: Always eat breakfast. Don’t eat with anybody but your kids. Though abiding by rule No. 2 means eating alone, if he’s on the road—which is a lot these days, particularly since Kennedy’s company, Tilray, went public in July. In a couple of hours he’ll board his 135th flight of the year—a stat he can tell you because his assistant, knowing how he relishes data, sends him monthly analytics on his own travel (in 2018, he flew 23% more miles than he did the year before). At the moment, though, his 4-year-old daughter, in a pink tutu, is stirring the batter skeptically from her perch atop the kitchen island. “Papa, I think you forgot the flour,” she chides. Kennedy’s family moved into the new house a few weeks after Tilray went public, and he still struggles to find things in his own kitchen. He shrugs as he begins scrambling eggs and frying bacon in another pan: “My kids say pancakes are the only thing I’m good at.”

Of course, his children are too young to know that what their dad is really good at is—at least for the moment—illegal in much of the U.S. and the world. Tilray sells cannabis, a.k.a. pot, weed, and more than 1,000 other colorful nicknames, for the medical-marijuana market and, more recently, the recreational one. It wears the crown as the hottest IPO of 2018, returning 315% for the year and valuing the Canada-based but American-run company at $9 billion today. The kids don’t know that the IPO—his daughter got to help ring the bell at the Nasdaq—made Kennedy not only a billionaire but the richest man in the legal marijuana business and maybe the face of its future. Or that after pancakes today, he’ll shake hands with officials at Anheuser-Busch InBev, the behemoth behind Budweiser, to form a $100 million partnership aimed at creating a cannabis-infused substitute for beer.

Tilray’s 50% contribution to that venture exceeds the estimated $45 million in revenue it made in 2018, a year in which its estimated losses hit $47 million. But AB InBev’s desire for a deal is just the latest sign of Big Business’s belief that widespread cannabis legalization is an inevitability, and that Tilray—a global operation founded by finance veterans and data geeks with minimal interest in, um, testing the product themselves—will be uniquely poised to capitalize when Big Cannabis goes mainstream.

The day before the predawn pancakes, Kennedy and I had boarded a 10-seat Cessna prop plane at Seattle’s Boeing Field for an hour-long

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