As a sophomore at Bucknell, Toledo native Pete Kadens started a company for a business class, selling camping chairs emblazoned with the university’s blue and orange bison logo. Soon, he had 32 employees under him and was turning the highest profit his professor had ever seen.
Two decades later, Mr. Kadens is the CEO of one of the biggest cannabis companies in the country, with a market cap of more than $1 billion. His company, Green Thumb Industries, which will soon grow, manufacture, or sell marijuana in seven states, is poised to open Toledo’s first medical marijuana dispensary on West Sylvania Avenue this fall.
“This is a great part of town,” Mr. Kadens said, sitting in a restaurant down the block from the dispensary’s future location. “I hope we continue to lift up this area.”
The vacated building that will house the dispensary still has signs for a ballet school, a health-care association, a hearing-aid shop, and a computer-repair business.
But soon, it will be transformed in GTI’s corporate image. The bricks will be painted over. The parking lot will be revamped to accommodate 30 cars. An orange sign out front will read RISE Toledo. The interior will be brightly lit, “like a medical spa,” Mr. Kadens said, with comfortable chairs to sit in — a key provision for patients with chronic pain — and a security guard, along with dozens of cameras, keeping watch.
“In most communities, our facilities make neighborhoods safer,” Mr. Kadens said. “We work with the local police force to increase patrols. We’ve never — knock on wood — had a security infraction.”
Security and safety are tenets of Mr. Kadens’s approach. GTI has steered clear of states with less-stringent regulations, including California, Washington, and Colorado, in favor of highly regulated markets like Ohio with arduous application processes and strict caps on dispensaries.
Mr. Kadens grew up a few miles from the future dispensary site, in Ottawa Hills. In high school, as class president and captain of the basketball and track teams, he displayed some of the traits that would propel him into business.
“He had to deal with some relationship issues on the team,” said John Lindsay, Mr. Kadens’ basketball coach. “He loved taking on responsibility and was just an outstanding leader.”
Mr. Kadens’ vice president, Sarah Robbins, said she and Mr. Kadens had to work with administrators to plan a class trip to Toronto.
“It took some convincing,” she said. “Even then, he was thinking big and wanting to put effort into something new and different.”
Years later, Mr. Kadens ran into Ms. Robbins’ sister, Amy, at a bar meetup of Toledoans in Chicago. They are now married.
Before entering the marijuana industry, Mr. Kadens founded an outsourced sales company called Acquirent and a commercial solar company called SoCore Energy, which completed projects at Welltower’s headquarters and four Walgreens in Toledo.
Even though SoCore grew quickly, expanding to 20 states, Mr. Kadens felt he was a latecomer to the emerging solar industry. But with more and more states legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, GTI has tapped into a surging market.
Mr. Kadens said that Ben Kovler, GTI’s founder, approached him in 2014 with an ambitious vision. “If you can brand something as mundane and as abundant as water, and charge a $3 or $4 premium,” Mr. Kadens remembered, “imagine the branding capacity of something that has thousands of permutations and real therapeutic value.”
That argument convinced Mr. Kadens to first become a passive investor in the company and then work with Mr. Kovler full time. But he’d already been interested in the marijuana industry because of its potential social benefits, he said.
Mr. Kadens worked with Cherry Street Mission in Toledo as a kid, and later became chairman of StreetWise, a homeless-aid organization based in Chicago, his current home. He came to believe that drug convictions trapped people in poverty.
“There’s several different permutations of poverty, and there’s several different reasons people become poor, the most pronounced of which is people, mostly black and Latino, who are convicted of nonviolent drug crimes,” he said. “I’m a big believer in second chances.”
As his company expands to his home city, Mr. Kadens said he sees GTI playing a part in a second coming for Toledo, in an era where opioid use is rampant and municipal governments are underfunded.
“I think [Toledo is] on its way up,” he said. “I think ProMedica and Mayor Kapszukiewicz have done a great job. … I can hopefully, in some small way, be a participant in the Renaissance of this community.”