Kevin Kuethe went through childhood thinking he’d be a fitness trainer or a professional athlete. He landed in cannabis instead, but his upbeat personality and cheek-to-cheek smile suggests he found his true calling.
Kuethe, 36, is part of an executive team that oversees 870 employees across 22 retail stores, 50 acres of outdoor grows and 250,000 square feet of indoor grows at Lume. He joined the Evart, Michigan-based company in 2017, and worked his way up to his current position as the company’s chief cultivation officer.
At this year’s annual Cannabis Conference, held Aug. 24-26 in Las Vegas, the Montana native was honored with one of six leadership awards given to the some of the industry’s most influential and successful people.
“I’m really grateful, honored and motivated,” Kuethe said of receiving the award. “I appreciate that I’m being recognized for the things I’m doing in my community and to my employees.”
From Fitness Trainer to Cannabis Grower
Many leaders in legal cannabis have taken unique paths to the industry, and Kuethe is no exception.
He admitted that growing marijuana was never in his plans when he majored in exercise science at the University of Montana. He was more interested in body-building and personal training. Within months of graduating, he’d built up a clientele of 40 people who he worked with one-on-one, helping them lift heavier and live healthier.
Kuethe liked the job, but he wanted more. He didn’t know what that next step was, though, until a childhood friend invited him down to Arizona.
Matt Morgan was the CEO of Bloom Dispensaries and wanted Kuethe, just 28-years-old at the time, to be the company’s chief operating officer. Kuethe says his first time laying eyes on a cannabis grow was inside Bloom’s 30,000 square-foot cultivation center — one of the country’s largest legal marijuana operations back in 2012.
The job, if he took it, would entail figuring out ways to spend less money, grow more weed and improve the quality of Bloom’s flower.
Whether he realized it or not, the stars had aligned for Kuethe to join the cannabis industry.
“Back then I couldn’t fully comprehend the value of what I was walking into,” Kuethe recalled, “but I knew it was a big deal. Now, I look back and realize I was incredibly lucky to get in at a place of that size at that point, and to get the experience I did.”
The biggest challenge was diving into an industry he hardly knew anything thing about. But his lifelong mentality of being “an optimization person” took command. Kuethe didn’t need a master’s degree to have success in marijuana. His passion and self-described obsession with detail proved sufficient.
“I just love to make things better,” he said. “Even when I was a kid, I was trying to find the best way to do things. I used to love root beer floats, and I made it my mission to try and pair the best root beer with the best ice cream.”
When Kuethe joined Bloom, he was one of just three company employees. Six months later, the company had 120 people on staff.
Leaving Las Vegas to Roll the Dice in Michigan
Kuethe left Bloom after just two years, when Morgan sold the company in 2014. He found his next pair of jobs in nearby Las Vegas, Nevada, where cannabis was on the verge of becoming recreational and the industry was scaling up to prepare for a surge in demand. He started at Blossom, a boutique cultivator near the Las Vegas Strip, then after just 12 months, took an offer to be the chief cultivation officer at GB Sciences — a larger cultivator in south Vegas that was publicly traded on over-the-counter markets.
He didn’t last long in Sin City, though.
Lume founder Dave Morrow toured GB Sciences’ cultivation and was blown away with the Vegas company’s young COO, according to Noelle Skodzinski, Cannabis Business Times editorial director who presented Kuethe with his leadership award last month. Above all, Morrow was drawn to Kuethe’s positive attitude and motivational effect on his employees.
Morrow waited just a few days to offer Kuethe a job, which was quickly accepted. It wasn’t long before Kuethe had worked his way up to an executive role.
“He’s unique in the sense that he really pays it forward,” Skodzinski said. “He’s making changes within his company but also within society. That’s what makes him special.”
Joy wouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind for most people considering a move to the tiny town of Evart, population 1,500, in the rural center of the Mitten State. Located 80 miles north of the closest major city, it lacks basic amenities like fresh food. Its average high temperature in the winter is below 32 degrees.
But Kuethe saw potential. He viewed his new company and city as opportunities to make his mark — both as a business leader and a member of the local community.
His mother, Kimberly Lugthart, raised him to believe true leaders give back to the neighborhoods they work and live in. Lugthart brought young Kevin and his sister to volunteer with her every summer in his hometown of Missoula when he was growing up. Together, the three cleaned up state parks and handed out food and medical kits to people affected by natural disasters. They also served at local soup kitchens and planted trees.
When Kuethe graduated high school, he spent eight months in AmeriCorps and donated 2,000 hours of community service. He continues to volunteer each year, and is now encouraging his employees to do the same.
Lume staffers get paid for up to eight hours community service each year on the company’s dime. Kuethe has shown the residents of Evart, most of whom stringently opposed a cannabis company putting its headquarters in the city, that he’s serious about giving back.
“I’m so proud of him, because he’s sincerely and legitimately a good-hearted person,” Lugthart said of her son. “He’s a positive force in the world, and this award is just one more expression of that.”
Finding the Right Lights
Kuethe credits much of his success to the lighting he uses across Lume’s 250,000 square-feet of indoor cultivation. Just like the root beer floats he made as a kid, Kuethe experimented with hundreds of different light combinations at varying frequencies, powers and positions before choosing high-powered LED lights from Las Vegas-based Fohse.
While Lume also harvests on 50 acres of outdoor grows, Kuethe said he relies exclusively on the Fohse lights for several months of the year when Michigan’s snowy winter season makes growing outside impossible.
Choosing Fohse wasn’t an overnight decision. Kuethe tested well over a dozen different LED products from different companies, placing them side-by-side in his grow rooms under the same conditions. He claims the conditions were carefully controlled to the point that he could produce “scientific studies with legit data.” The Fohse lights were the first to exceed the setup already in place when he arrived at Lume.
Kuethe said the other LEDs he tried produced great results from the top of the plant, but the results weren’t as strong in the middle and bottom portions. The ‘popcorn’ buds produced by the non-Fohse lights were only good enough to grind up and sell in prerolls.
“There’s more bud and it’s higher quality,” Kuethe said of his plants with the Fohse lighting. “And it’s denser and lower in the canopy, so there’s real light penetration all the way through.”
His tinkering over the past three years has resulted in Lume producing almost four times the yields Kuethe was putting out when he first started. As he demonstrates for his employees, his company and the tiny town of Evart, Kuethe says he works tirelessly to help his plants reach their full potential.