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Meet Michael Tan, the man in charge of the government’s pot sales in B.C.

Before Michael Tan was hired to oversee cannabis sales for the B.C. government, he borrowed a hoodie from his 17-year-old son and stood outside a Vancouver pot shop.
Michael Tan
Michael Tan: "You're basically taking the business from zero to one."

Before Michael Tan was hired to oversee cannabis sales for the B.C. government, he borrowed a hoodie from his 17-year-old son and stood outside a Vancouver pot shop.

The former retail executive then surveyed about 100 recreational cannabis users to get their take on legalization.

“The biggest takeaway was that consumers thought the government was going to take the fun out of pot and that the government would ‘mess it up,’ ” said Tan, executive director of cannabis operations for B.C.’s Liquor Distribution Branch since May. “I wanted to make sure their concerns weren’t realized.”

Since Canada legalized recreational marijuana on Oct. 17, thousands have opted to purchase their pot through the mail. In one month, the B.C. Cannabis online store saw 34,000 transactions.

Tan declined to disclose the value of those transactions, but said orders are being processed with Amazon-level efficiency. Cannabis is picked, packed and shipped within one business day, said Tan, who was speaking from the Liquor Distribution Branch’s 60,000-square-foot distribution warehouse in Richmond.

B.C. Cannabis, the brand for government-sold cannabis, has only one brick-and-mortar store, in Kamloops, and just two private cannabis shops have been approved by the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch. Another 289 applications are in progress.

The majority of Victoria’s two dozen cannabis dispensaries have shut their doors as they wait for provincial licences.

Victoria cannabis industry insider James Whitehead, who has sold his Medijuana chain of dispensaries, said private cannabis retailers are frustrated by the slow bureaucratic process.

“[The government] says: ‘We’re going to let you guys participate in the new economy of it, but you have to stop everything you’re doing and start over and play by the rules.’ So [cannabis retail owners] shut down even though they know it’s hurting their patients, even though they have to lay off all their staff, even though they’re shutting down developed businesses that they spent five years building, to try to comply,” Whitehead said.

“And then the government is not coming forward with the licences.”

To make things worse, he said, only one government store was ready by Oct. 17.

Tan said he knows people are anxiously awaiting more stores, but said there’s a host of logistics that must fall into place. That includes finding the right location and then working with the municipal government to meet zoning requirements.

Each municipality can set its own rules on where pot shops can operate, and some — including Saanich, Sidney, Colwood, Metchosin and Oak Bay — have altered their zoning bylaws to exclude them completely “We are involved in discussions with many, many local governments and I think we’ll start seeing more and more stores coming around,” Tan said.

Tan is well aware of the cannabis supply shortages that have forced government stores in New Brunswick, Quebec and Labrador to shut their stores or reduce hours. “There are countrywide supply issues simply because licensed producers are only capable of fulfilling a portion of everyone’s initial orders,” he said.

He said the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch has signed purchase agreements with 40 licensed producers and is always on the hunt for cannabis producers approved by Health Canada.

Tan, a married father of four who moved to Vancouver just over a year ago, spent most of his career in supply chain management, working for Hudson’s Bay Co., Indigo and Saks 5th Avenue. Two years ago, he started studying startups, trying to determine the secrets of super-successful disrupters.

In some ways, the B.C. government faces the same challenges as a startup, he said. “You’re basically taking the business from zero to one.”

Tan acknowledged that government bureaucracy means that B.C. Cannabis likely can’t be as nimble as a startup.

“Every successful startup starts with an establishment of a foundational culture, in terms of why people come to work and making people buy into that why,” Tan said.

“If I had to point to one single reason for our success, it would be the amazing culture that we’ve been able to cultivate. We have a really strong ‘why’ — as to why we’re here — that everyone buys into passionately.”

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