Growing a business, one seed at a time
By Kyle Bournes
It's Friday morning at an Ottawa west-end coffee shop, where I'm waiting for Chuck Rifici, one of 2014's most talked and written about Ottawa entrepreneurs. He walks in looking relaxed and, no doubt, ready for a morning coffee, while I anticipate a conversation with this successful 2002 uOttawa computer engineering alumnus.
Rifici is co-founder and former CEO of Tweed Inc., a producer of medical marijuana based in Smiths Falls, just 50 minutes west of Ottawa. In 2013, Tweed announced it was setting up shop in the former Hershey chocolate factory. This was welcome news for a town that had lost 600 jobs when Hershey closed its doors in 2008, after 45 years. Today, Tweed is hiring and 50 to 70% of employees call Smiths Falls and its neighbouring communities home.
I ask Rifici about his simple gray t-shirt with white lettering spelling out four or five words stacked like a grocery store shopping list: "herringbone," "argyle," "houndstooth" and so on. Rifici tells me these are names of medical marijuana strains that Tweed produces. The T-shirts are worn by staff and are not available for purchase. It becomes clear to me that this new biopharmaceutical startup is not interested in being conventional. The hip look and feel of Tweed is part of the company's marketing strategy.
For Rifici and his team, the period from fall 2013 to fall 2014 was very busy.
Over the year, Tweed:
- Constructed the Smiths Falls production facility and starting growing operations
- Was licensed by Health Canada to produce and sell medical marijuana
- Transformed itself into a public company trading on the TSX-V Exchange with $28,000,000 in capital
- Established an online store (the first products were shipped to patients-clients in May 2014)
- Became the world's largest legal medical marijuana greenhouse after acquiring Park Lane Farms, a 350,000 sq. ft. greenhouse facility in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area (Smiths Falls facility is 150,000 sq. ft.)
- Started research partnerships with the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Science and Ryerson University.
Along the way Rifici and Tweed were featured in the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Sun, as well as in global media outlets such as the New York Times, Al-Jazeera.com, the Huffington Post, Bloomberg Business Weekand Vice.com. And to think that the company did not even have a payroll until August 2013.
It's been quite a ride.
Rifici started his first company, Comnet Communications, in 1995, as an engineering undergraduate. It took him eight years to finish his degree, but studying part time was worth it, because he and his business partner sold the company for $1 million, in 2001. This enabled Rifici to invest in himself by earning an MBA degree. Following a few years as an executive at Sitebrand, an online marketing company, Rifici established himself as a CFO for hire, offering his skills and knowledge on contract to successful start-ups such as TekSavvy and Select Start Studios.
It's fair to say that Chuck Rifici and Tweed Inc. have become synonymous with medical marijuana and entrepreneurship in Canada, even though he stepped aside as its CEO in August 2014.
Unsurprisingly, all of his successes and accolades over the past year have been noticed by the Faculty of Engineering. He will receive its inaugural Alumnus/Alumna Entrepreneur of the Year award on March 10, when he returns to campus to deliver the keynote address at the Entrepreneurship Bridges Lecture, entitled Growing Green: Lessons from Serial Entrepreneur Chuck Rifici (co-founder, Tweed Inc.).
Chuck Rifici stands by marijuana plants at the Tweed Inc. facility. Photo: Tweed Inc.