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Billionaire Beau Wrigley Says His Cannabis Company Will Be Bigger Than The Family Candy Business

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With his startup, Parallel, the chewing gum heir is not just banking on getting consumers high. He believes marijuana can be a life saver.

In 2017, when billionaire William “Beau” Wrigley Jr. was pitched cannabis as a new investment opportunity by his family office’s managing director, Jay Holmes, he shut it down immediately. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “I’m not excited about wearing orange and possibly ending up in prison.” 

Still, Wrigley, heir to the all-Ameri­can chewing gum fortune, couldn’t deny that the burgeoning legal marijuana industry checked off all his investment criteria: a trend in changing consumer behavior, a transforming regulatory environment and multiple applications in health care.

So Wrigley rethought the proposition. He told Holmes to find a target company, and he eventually located one at home in Florida: Surterra Wellness. Wrigley and his team flew down to its 180,000-square-foot operation outside Tampa, the company’s biggest facility where cannabis flower is grown.

After inspecting the cultivation site—it was the first time the 57-year-old Wrigley, who says he has smoked pot only once in his life, had seen a room full of cannabis—the group boarded the plane home with the flowers’ sweet, pungent smell permeating their clothing. 

“No one had known where we were, and I think they thought we were out getting high,” Wrigley recalls on a sunny afternoon while sitting on the patio of his North Palm Beach estate on Lake Worth lagoon. 

Soon after that excursion, he led a $65 million investment round in Surterra, and in November 2018, he replaced the company’s cofounder as CEO.

Renamed Parallel, Wrigley’s company now has 42 dispensaries across three states, with 39 in Florida and the rest in Massachusetts and Nevada, with new ones slated to open in Pennsylvania and Texas.

To date, it has raised a total of $400 million largely from Wrigley and other high-net-worth individuals. The latest funding round, which closed in 2020, valued the $250 million company (2020 sales) at an estimated $2 billion. 

He is credited with breathing life into a 100-year-old family business by helping replace its natural-gum formula with a more cost-effective synthetic base and expanding its reach by acquiring Life Savers and Altoids. In October 2008, Wrigley closed the deal of his lifetime—he took Wrigley Co. private by selling to Mars, Inc., another company owned by a family of billionaires. 

Understandably, many assume Wrigley will produce a cannabis gum one day. After launching into a three-minute explanation of the science and molecular biology behind ensuring the release of the right flavors for the appropriate amount of time from chewing gum base, he says he’s concerned about how expensive the R&D process could be—as well as the risk of appealing to children. Still: “Never say never,” he says. 

Much like Wrigley Co., Parallel has global ambitions. According to an investment document obtained by Forbes, Parallel is exploring cannabis and hemp cultivation licenses in Southeast Asia. (Wrigley admits he has spoken to government officials in the region but says talks have slowed during the pandemic.) 

“In comparison to Wrigley, this is also a cross-cultural product,” he says. “Just like we sold in 180 countries, cannabis plays everywhere.” 

When asked what his ancestors would think about his foray into the industry, Wrigley takes his time to answer. Standing on a wooden walkway leading to the main entrance of his estate, he is flanked by two ponds filled with koi. Flags on a small putting green nearby wave in the breeze off Lake Worth. 

“Gosh, at first blush they would roll over in their graves,” he says with a smile. 

Although pot is still illegal under federal law, 43 states have created their own legal markets of one kind or another, and with Democrats now in control of Congress, national legalization seems closer than ever. “I don’t consider our business illegal,” he says. “It’s caught up in a political quagmire for the moment.” 

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