In the state-of-the art marijuana grow for Native Roots with CEO Josh Ginsberg, left, and CBO (chief branding officer) Rhett Jordan in Denver on Feb. 15, 2016. Native Roots is one of the largest license holders in the state. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

Native Roots’ Rhett Jordan: ‘No one believed in cannabis back then. I did.’

The guys behind one of America's largest legal marijuana empires

How could two misfit thirty-something Colorado kids have grown up to create Native Roots, one of the largest legal-marijuana empires in America?

Gumption, hard work, impeccable timing and a passion for the plant.

Oh, and a superior amount of good fortune in landing a fairy-tale partnership with a telecommunications and real estate millionaire tycoon in Vail.

From the day in 2002 when a mutual friend introduced Josh Ginsberg to Rhett Jordan, the two became fast friends with a shared love of live music, extreme sports and weed.

Ginsberg, a straight-A admitted misfit from Steamboat Springs with a penchant for mischief, was headed to Wall Street with economics and computer-science degrees from Bucknell University.

Jordan, the son of powerhouse real estate agent Rollie Jordan, was better known around hometown Genesee as a pothead than an aspiring jock.

“No one believed in cannabis back then,” Jordan said with a wink. “I did, but no one else did.”

Despite a stint in a Utah boarding school because of regular run-ins with marijuana, Jordan had the gene for salesmanship. So a career in nonprofit promotions soared after studying marketing at the University of Colorado.

Ultimately, though, Ginsberg wasn’t cut out for New York City — he was part of J.P. Morgan’s young-executive program — and Jordan ran into a wall when the 2008 financial crisis put the brakes on fund-raisers and other philanthropic activities.

It was 2009, and the number of cannabis dispensaries suddenly outnumbered Starbucks locations in the city.

And the friends did their part. Ginsberg bought Boulder pot shop The Dandelion, and Jordan purchased downtown Denver shop Alternative Medicine on the Mall, giving it the Native Roots name tag.

Eventually they joined forces, and soon they were heading to Vail to discuss leasing a property in nearby Avon with its owner — Peter Knobel — who knew a friend of Rollie Jordan.

“We were basically sitting at the table waiting to sign the lease,” Ginsberg remembered. “And (Peter) was like, ‘So what else do you guys want?’ And we said, ‘We need an investment for a couple million.’ “

The trio struck the lease deal. And not long after, Knobel made his way to Denver to look at the duo’s operation. Within days, Knobel showed them a Dahlia Street warehouse.

“It’s this gigantic thing, and he asks if we can grow weed in there,” Jordan recalled.

The partnership was pitched, and the triumvirate was born. In a young marijuana industry that lacked banking, loans and credibility, Knobel would be their money man and real estate lead.

“I turned to Rhett and said it would be the stupidest thing we’d ever do to not take this deal,” Ginsberg said. “If there’s a shark in this industry, someone who can make anything happen, it’s (Peter). We basically struck gold when we met him.”

Knobel refused repeated requests for an interview for this story.

In 2001, Knobel had moved his family full time into a Vail vacation home he’d built at the foot of the slopes in 1997. The former telecommunications executive and real estate developer from Long Island, 58, set about to boost the ski village’s image — something some locals didn’t appreciate.

His motivation behind Solaris, a $250 million condominium-based project with restaurants, shops and theaters, was his kids, who didn’t have much to do in the resort town during the warmer months.

Vail is “the greatest place to live, and I can live anywhere I want to,” Knobel told the Vail Daily in July 2006.

Knobel has had a couple of other notable scrapes, including a long-running battle against the federal trustee liquidating convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff’s securities company, in which Knobel was an investor. The trustee filed a claw-back lawsuit in 2010 in U.S. District Court in Denver against Knobel to reclaim nearly $20 million in “fictitious profits” paid by Madoff’s company to Knobel and his wife over a six-year period.

The case is pending.

Knobel purchased the bare Denver warehouse — 160,000 square feet for $5.1 million in 2013, according to property records — and it has since transformed into a state-of-the-art marijuana cultivation facility, the world’s largest.

During a recent tour, Ginsberg said they’re striving to be “the Starbucks of the marijuana industry.”

Other key real estate transactions followed, including high-traffic spots in ski resort towns, and Jordan’s input picked up.

Their annual consumption-friendly Tree House party was packed with gold medalists at this January’s Winter X-Games in Aspen. And they’re expanding their collaborations with rising stars, including electronic music producer GRiZ, who has his own strain of marijuana on sale at Native Roots.

It wasn’t long before the trio expanded from the three shops to 16 — three in Denver, four in Colorado Springs, two in Boulder and others in Aspen, Dillon and Frisco.

“(Peter) walks in and just hands them a check, and it’s done,” Ginsberg said. “That’s what really has allowed us to build as quickly as we have, our ability to make moves on a dime.”

But they are careful to scrutinize any offer to expand or buy competitors.

“Everyone’s got big eyes right now,” Jordan said, “and they might think their business is worth $4 million, but the reality is it’s worth $700,000.”

Although their success has catapulted further than either expected, they realize that without Knobel, the junior partners likely would remain a three- or four-shop operation.

“He’s so smart, so brilliant, with such a great outlook on how the world and business runs,” Ginsberg said.

Added Jordan: “He’s taught me that business moves fast, and when you’re playing the game and playing it right, there’s no slowing down.”

Ricardo Baca: 303-954-1394, rbaca@denverpost.com or @bruvs

This story was first published on DenverPost.com