Cannabis is ready for the mainstream, says banker who quit for entrepreneurship
Serge Chistov used to be a financial adviser, but he believes he has a knack for spotting an opportunity and, right now, he's turning his attention to the cannabis industry. Several U.S. states including California voted to legalise marijuana in this year's election and the expectation is that the industry is poised for explosive growth.
Chistov has had a varied career. Initially, he studied to become a doctor, but changed his focus to wealth management. After working his way up the career ladder, Chistov turned to entrepreneurship - first as a vodka distributor and now cannabis through his firm Serge Import.
Change of career plan
Chistov began his career as a financial adviser at Berkeley Securities and then Sharpe Capital, going on to become a registered representative at Cantone Research.
“I came into the country after medical school – I decided not to pursue medical career,” Chistov said. “The idea was to break into the financial world as a stock broker without prior education. I got licensed in the early ‘90s, and that was my beginning on Wall Street as a financial adviser, which led to me running the investment division for a regional bank in New Jersey."
From there, he joined National Securities as a stock broker, eventually working his way up to senior financial adviser, during which time he launched Serge Import, initially a side hustle importing Exclusiv Vodka, which is distilled from wheat in Moldova.
After close to six years at National Securities, he joined PNC Investments, the broker-dealer arm of PNC Bank, where he provided investment advice and wealth management services for the bank’s client base looking for packaged and individual investment products.
Goodbye to financial services
In 2007, just before the financial crisis, Chistov decided to focus on Serge Import full time.
“It was a transition from one corporate world to another – in fact, the large distribution of alcohol is very similar to distribution of mutual funds or bonds or whatever,” Chistov said. “Working as a salesman was nothing new for me, the constant need to distinguish yourself and make the customer willing to accept that Exclusiv Vodka is a very good product at the right price.
“As Exclusiv Vodka became more successful, I completed the transition, leaving financial services for good,” he said.
Becoming a cannabis entrepreneur by investing in Honest Marijuana
While laboring to grow the business during the recession, he noticed that many states had legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes, and he began to see the business opportunity. In 2012, Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana for those 21 and older.
“The moment when it hit me that there was such a big opportunity in cannabis was probably 2013 – I like to visit the packaging, pharmaceutical and alcohol combination shows, because it keeps me in tune with those industries,” Chistov said. “I started to see larger well-establish pharma tech companies not shying away from this conversation [about cannabis].
“Until 2012 or ‘13 larger suppliers for the pharma and packaging industry did not take cannabis seriously and would walk away if I tried to bring it up,” he said. “At that time I said it feels like I’m not the only one who looks at it like an opportunity – it’s a very interesting field, and a big believer in and supporter of the plant and its therapeutic value, not only as a consumer, but from my time in med school.”
Fast forward to today, and medical marijuana is legal in 25 states plus the District of Columbia, and it is completely legal, including for recreational purposes, in eight states.
California was the biggest domino to fall this year, which could lead to the federal government reassessing its classification of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance.
“I’ve always been looking for an opportunity to utilize my ability in sales and take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace,” Chistov said. “I saw the various phases of overregulation of financial services, whereas cannabis is steadily becoming less regulated.
“The cannabis industry can potentially go mainstream, but we have to treat it like a real industry – we need to treat it with respect and stay ahead of new regulations that will come, encourage consumers to come back and demand this particular product,” he said.
As more states legalize it, new businesses are jumping into the field. Chistov was an early lender to Anthony Franciosi, an organic marijuana grower and the owner of Honest Marijuana, which has a distribution network throughout Colorado.
“I lent him the money to get up and running, and I’m helping him out with the business,” Chistov said. “Honest Marijuana will build up in a mature and developed market like Colorado, then we’ll take our learnings and apply it to younger markets, eventually expand and roll out to like-minded markets.
“In Colorado, the distribution is quite simple – we have 30 some stores in the state, and we are considering opening to wider distribution,” he said. “The goal is to bring greater consumer awareness and understanding of what we do, overdelivering on the quality and being able to sell to our customers again and again with consistency.”
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