DENVER (MainStreet) — Tripp Keber may be well on his way to becoming one of the nation's first legal marijuana billionaires.
When companies the size of Reynolds American and Pepsico start putting cash into this industry, Keber, the founder of Denver-based Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, may well be one of the guys taking cash out.
He's been called a "ganja-preneur," a "marijuana mogul," and the "Willie Wonka of Weed." His fast-growing company touts itself as "the future of cannabis."
He doesn't really believe in smoking pot. He believes in drinking it, eating it, vaporizing it and rubbing all over your body. He sells reefer-laced soda pop, truffles, mints, waxes and even marijuana massage oils. When he talks about his wide array of products with a once-illegal ingredient, he often sounds like an economics professor, even to the point of using the term, "widgets."
"All we're trying to do is create innovative delivery systems that give consumers and patients safe and effective choices," he told MainStreet. He is also building a brand.
Keber, 45, is serial entrepreneur who once helped turn-around a financially troubled telecommunications company in Denver and also developed a luxury RV park in Gulf Shores, Ala., called Bella Terra.
He began his adult life as a Reagan Republican, raising money for conservative causes, and even folks like Oliver North. He still remembers the former first lady's campaign to just say no; he just doesn't say it.
"Do you remember the commercial? This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs," he laughs. "Listen, I was a delusional, young man."
A downturn in prospects following the financial crisis pushed him into Colorado's nascent #$%$ business in 2009. He started out in a 400-square-foot house in a crime-ridden Denver neighborhood where he worried more about the neighbors than the police.
Within a year, he expanded into a 12,000-square-foot plant in a commercial park area along Denver's Interstate-70 corridor. "If you would have told me back then that I'd ever need more space, I'd have said you were using the product," he said.
With the legalization of marijuana for recreational uses on January 1, he's been building out his business in 30,000-square-foot building that once housed a bakery. He now has 45 employees and adds one or two more per week to keep up with demand. He won't disclose revenues but said his revenues have been multiplying 150% to more than 300% a year.
His company generates so much revenue, in fact, that he said he paid cash for the building, and he is sparing few expenses on the equipment and finishes he's putting inside.
"This will be a place for cannabis business people to congregate," he said, giving a tour of his new plant, now under construction.
It will be an exhibition area featuring a bar, a stage and windows into the plant where all his extractions and formulations take place. He plans to throw a grand opening party like no other legal marijuana business has ever seen, and check out the guests:
"This will be a place for law enforcement officers, lawmakers and policy wonks to get together really de-mystify what is going on in this state," he said. "Because as we know, it's a little bit of an experiment."
So far, Colorado's little experiment is generating few problems and lots of cash. Colorado's Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, who opposed legalizing marijuana, is looking flush with the new green economy.
His budget office recently projected marijuana sales will far exceed previous expectations, pumping about $134 million in revenues into state coffers in the fiscal year beginning in July. That means his administration expects Colorado's marijuana stores to enjoy nearly $1 billion in sales for the year.
But Keber says most projections for his industry come in low. "Every time we make a projection, it's outdated by the time the ink is dried," he said. "We can't keep up with demand."
Here's why Keber's products sell: tourists flocking to Denver for a legal marijuana high, soon find there are few places where they can actually smoke the stuff. They can't light up on sidewalks, in public places, in rental cars and often not even in hotel rooms. Keber's products, available at many of Colorado's marijuana retail outlets, offer a solution.
"You can be sucking on a mint, receiving the benefit of cannabis, and nobody's going to know," he said.
There's no smoke. There's no telltale odor. "Wives, husbands and children are not going to be the wiser," Keber said.
It's not always so easy, though, to be completely discreet.
Last year, Keber was arrested for marijuana possession in Baldwin County, Ala. He was nabbed at the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores with a tiny amount of marijuana concentrate. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, but the case will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for two years.
The bummer is, he can't even sample his own legal wares. He must submit to alcohol and drug tests, and if he fails, he faces up to a year in jail. Keber chalks it all up to a little error in judgment. He says he was on vacation and really doesn't use the drug all that much.
"I have a very casual relationship at best with marijuana," he said.
He wouldn't have faced these charges in Colorado, but Alabama isn't Colorado. He's lucky: had he been charged with a felony, he would not have been able to run Dixie Elixirs or the two-dozen or so other marijuana businesses in which he has an interest.
Still, it wasn't all bad.
"It kind of gave him street cred," said Keber's in-house marketing and public relations executive Joe Hodas.
And Keber needs street cred, Hodas said.
He recently appeared on the cover of Reason magazine in a suit, looking every bit the Reagan Republican he used to be, even though the story was about weed. He is also well aware that some elements of what is still very much a cottage industry do not appreciate his slick, big business approach.
He looks like the kind of guy who sells it but doesn't do it. He boasts that he's in this business for the money. And he openly longs for the day when Big Pharma, Big Tobbaco and Big Food take over the entire industry – because that's when he'll cash out.
So far, only a couple of Keber's dreams have yet to come true. He wants the federal government to legalize weed and he wants it to allow interstate transportation of the drug. That's when big business really comes in, he said.
Keber is building large corporate structure with a holding company and many subsidiaries. He says he doesn't even look for people with marijuana knowledge when he hires.
"It's much easier to teach a business person how to work with marijuana than it is to teach some turkey with 20 years of marijuana experience about business," he said.
He keeps a photo from December 5, 1933 on his desk. It is the day prohibition was repealed. It was a sad day for bathtub gin-makers and a great day for companies that would become the major brewers, distillers and wineries Americans know and love today.
"I go back weekly and read stories about prohibition," Keber said. "I read stories about the Kennedys, and others, who built empires. And I know there will be new fortunes made in the future."