The Yes Factor

Cannabis Leadership Awards - Kevin Kuethe, Lume Cannabis Co.

Lume Cannabis Co. Chief Cultivation Officer Kevin Kuethe’s relentless positivity and incessant desire to learn, improve and give back to the community have enabled him to oversee the company’s breakneck growth at its Evart, Mich., facility while ensuring the team is ‘always smiling.’

August 9, 2021

Kevin Kuethe, Chief Cultivation Officer of Lume Cannabis Co.
Photo by Karac Swihart

When Kevin Kuethe was 8 years old, he was enrolled in tae kwon do classes and learning to tumble.

“He was tumbling all the time, everywhere and anywhere,” says Kim Lugthart, Kuethe’s mother. “He would practice tumbling even in the grocery store.”

Around that same time, he had a teacher who was a juggler. He asked the teacher to teach him how to juggle, and the teacher agreed. “Kevin juggled everything, anywhere he was,” says Lugthart. “He would pick up any objects, even if they weren’t the same size or weight or shape. He was always juggling.”

And Kuethe’s incessant desire to excel at everything hasn’t waned as he’s grown up.

“I was recently thinking about this, and I was like, ‘God, I guess I do that with everything,’” Kuethe says. “And I immediately thought about root beer floats. Usually when people want a root beer float, they’ll go buy a root beer float, right? You get ice cream, root beer, you got it. You’re successful. Well, for me, I was like, ‘There’s got to be the perfect combination of ice cream and root beer for the best root beer float.’ So, I would go out and buy every single vanilla ice cream and every single root beer, and combo them until I found the right one. (‘It’s Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and Virgil’s root beer, by the way,’ he adds with a proud grin.)

“I just try to find the best way to do it, whatever it is,” Kuethe says. “That’s just how I’ve always been. ”

When Kuethe, now chief cultivation officer for Michigan-based Lume Cannabis Co., first worked in the legal cannabis industry, it was like learning to juggle all over again, albeit a mountain more complex. “It was all so exciting and so new to me. I remember just being obsessed,” he says. “I used to spend nights at Barnes & Noble trying to read anything I possibly could on plant science. When I find stuff I’m interested in, I just want to know everything.”

This insatiable appetite for learning has helped Kuethe thrive in his cannabis roles.

Most recently, since Kuethe joined Lume four years ago, he has guided the design, buildout and launch of Lume’s 250,000-square-foot high-tech cultivation and solventless extraction facility in Evart, Mich., along with another 33 acres of outdoor cultivation that launched this spring and “another expansion garden in the works,” according to Kuethe.

The ‘Positivity’ Factor

Beyond Kuethe’s hunger for learning, another character trait has helped him successfully oversee the Evart operation’s uber-rapid growth from a few to nearly 300 employees in just two years: He’s incorrigibly positive—and it’s contagious, according to those who work closest with him.

“When you meet Kevin, he likes to get people fired up about the possibilities of the future. It’s infectious,” says Marlon Mallas, Lume’s Evart-based general manager. “When he’s like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this and we’re doing that, and this is going to be great!’ and the wheels are spinning really fast, and he talks fast, you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, wow, okay. Are we really doing this? Yes. Okay. We’re doing this! I like it. Let’s go!’”

In fact, Kuethe’s top attribute is “his positive, can-do attitude,” says Lume President and COO Doug Hellyar.

Mallas agrees. “He doesn’t let anything slow him down. He doesn’t get discouraged. He’s always moving the chains, and that kind of person is invaluable to have on a team, especially for an aggressive startup like we are—starting from a single retail store to what we are now,” he says.

Left to right: Kevin Kuethe; Doug Hellyar, Lume President and COO; Marlon Mallas, Lume’s general manager of cultivation; and Thilo Savage, cultivation data specialist, whose hiring is a point of pride for Kuethe, as Savage developed the custom tools Lume uses to process and analyze the vast amounts of data it collects on its cultivation operations.
Photo by Karac Swihart

Lume has grown to more than 1 million square feet of cultivation in Evart and other Michigan locales, and is about to open its 22nd retail store with about 900 employees across the operation, Hellyar says.

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Kuethe encourages this keep-going philosophy in his team, too. “I always tell people, don’t feel bad about making a mistake. Learn from that and move on,” Kuethe says. “I’ve tried to get through everyone’s head that this is cannabis, and it is a great, fun, easy place to work. Everyone’s smiling. Everyone’s in a good mood. No one’s breathing down your neck or screaming at you telling you what to do. There’s music playing. We’re happy.

“That really is the most important piece,” Kuethe adds. “I didn’t put enough importance on that before. At my previous jobs, I was only trying to grow a high volume of good weed, period. I didn’t realize how important that aspect is[of] having a really good environment. The vibe is always good. I call it ‘building the yes factor.’ I just like to say ‘yes’ a lot.”

This vision for a super-positive, can-do culture was one reason Hellyar and Lume founder and CEO Dave Morrow were drawn to Kuethe when they met him while on a tour at GB Sciences’ cultivation operation in Las Vegas, where Kuethe was COO. “He wants people to enjoy their time at work. Dave and I are all about being positive and enjoying your time at Lume and growing the best cannabis you can,” Hellyar says. “And it starts with Kevin and Marlon and the team. It’s evident when you come here. You can see it on their faces; they all enjoy coming to work.”

One key to creating that environment, Kuethe says, is first, “trying to get people that fit that mold.”

The Vouch Factor

To find the right people, Kuethe brought with him a hiring practice he employed in his previous role at GB Sciences.

“A lot of people wanted to work in the cannabis industry—and especially [at] GB –in Nevada. It was a big deal…,” Kuethe says. “I had so many resumes, and all these employees are like, ‘Hey, can you hire my friend? Can you hire my sister?’ And I always say, ‘Look, I want to bring in people that are good. And I want to bring in people that you really believe are good.’ So the only way I can really do that is to have somebody vouch for that person. And I would tell people, ‘When I say vouch for them, I mean, everything. If they get fired, you get fired. The real deal.’”

This is how Kuethe met Mallas. “This Mike Lopez gentleman [who worked at GB Sciences] came to me and said, ‘Hey, I have this guy named Marlon Mallas. He would be such a good attribute to the company.’ I liked everything I heard and said, ‘Would you vouch for him?’ And he took about five seconds and said, ‘This is the only guy in the world I would do that for.’

“I said, ‘Man, bring him here immediately.’ And the second I talked to Marlon, I was like, ‘You’re hired,’” Kuethe says, with his already high level of enthusiasm escalating. “He’s awesome.”

Kuethe and Mallas have now worked together for four years, moving together from GB Sciences to Lume in 2017.

The ‘Pay It Forward’ Factor

As passionate as Kuethe is about growing quality cannabis and fostering a happy work environment, he is just as passionate about “paying it forward,” and his team has rallied behind him in this effort.

“It’s just a part of who I am. If I have the ability to donate or give back or spend time in any way, especially if it’s a community I’m in, I’m doing it,” Kuethe says. “And if I can get other people to do it with me, we’re doing it.”

Much of Kuethe’s desire to give back was instilled in him by his mother, he says.

When he was a boy, he and his sister, Sierra, would join Lugthart for fundraising efforts when their mother was president of the Missoula Downtown Association in Missoula, Mont. From the time he was 11 through his teen years, Kuethe would volunteer with Lugthart at the Nature Conservancy’s Guest Ranch in Montana.

“In April, we would go for at least three days of service, where you volunteer to help get the ranch ready for the season, do a bunch of outdoor work assignments, like taking down or putting up a fence, digging trenches, planting, whatever it was,” Lugthart says. “We did this with about 60 to 70 other people. There was always music. It was fun, but it was a lot of hard work.”

After Kuethe graduated from high school, he spent 10 months volunteering with the federal community service and volunteerism agency AmeriCorps.

“You go to all these different places and work on different projects,” Kuethe says. “We went to Chippokes State Park in Virginia to do disaster relief. We went to the Scotland School for Veterans Children, which is where orphaned children of veterans live on campus. We did restoration to the housing they lived in, code improvements, installed lighting, that kind of thing, and then tutored them in the in the afternoons.”

“After working in the Pennsylvania orphanage for 7 to 8 weeks, Kevin told me it was really hard, because a lot of those kids have no one coming to see them, nowhere to go for holidays,” Lugthart recalled. “And I think it really made him appreciate what he has.”

As a teenager, Kevin Kuethe worked at a Pennsylvania orphanage as part of the AmeriCorps volunteer program.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Kuethe

Those volunteer experiences also changed Kuethe’s outlook on life and work.

“The most valuable thing I got when I was done doing all that work was I felt like I didn’t really need to work for money. I felt like even five bucks an hour would be amazing to me at that point,” Kuethe says. “I had so much responsibility to complete tasks because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re making money. That was instilled in me during that entire year.”

Similarly, Hellyar, Morrow and the rest of Lume’s management share and support Kuethe’s pay-it-forward passion. For example, each employee receives eight hours of paid “volunteer time off,” or VTO, Kuethe says.

“We’re active in lots of communities around the state, and it’s important for us to give back in all those,” Hellyar says, noting Kuethe is the team’s “frontline connection to the city,” and the team most recently has volunteered at food banks and planted trees around the downtown area, among many other efforts.

”We [also] did an Earth Day cleanup. We had a team of about 20 or 25 people and just picked up garbage all day long, dug up old planter beds on main street and put new plants in, and just tried to make the city look better,” Kuethe says.

To date this year, the team in Evart has completed more than 300 volunteer hours, Mallas says. “And I think since we started here, we’ve donated over $200,000.”

‘The Beginning’ and Lessons Learned

Kuethe’s desire to help people impacts the grow operation, too. When he learns of employees’ interests, he not only encourages them to pursue them, but helps them achieve their goals.

One example Hellyar recalls is when a couple of team members working in the tissue culture lab expressed interest in taking their skills and the lab to the next level. “Kevin saw that, and said, ‘Let’s get you educated.’ So we sent them to a weeklong class on tissue culture, and today they’re leading our tissue culture lab,” Hellyar says.

Kuethe adds that this has enabled them to do more advanced techniques, such as synthetic seeds, meristematic tissue rejuvenation and plant-sexing.

“Too many big corporations out there will say, ‘Oh no, we’ll just find somebody else with those skills,’” Kuethe says. “Why not invest in your team? They’re capable people. I’ve been in that position where I knew I was capable, but I didn’t have the skills yet. … And I always just think back to the beginning, I just needed the opportunity to do it. I try to provide that for people.”

For Kuethe, that beginning in the cannabis industry was in 2010 when his childhood friend, Matt Morgan, asked him to join him in Arizona to launch a cannabis business in the state’s newly legal medical market. Despite running the gym and personal training business he had founded in Missoula, Kuethe says he decided to leave his business and take the “crazy opportunity” that Morgan described.

One of the drivers behind Kuethe’s decision came from his family’s experience in seeing the positive impact cannabis had on managing pain. Kuethe’s stepfather, Printer Bowler, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer when Kevin was a young man, and Lugthart describes his traditional pharmaceutical treatments as mind-clouding.

Once Bowler tried cannabis, Kuethe recalls, “[Printer] told me, ‘Man, it took away not only all my pain, but I feel clearheaded. I almost broke down because it was just amazing to see him where he was and then where that put him. That really drove a large piece of passion for me, and that still sticks with me today. I know that I’m providing that for other people, [and] I just feel so good about my job because of that. My moral compass is in the right direction at all times at work, which is a rare thing to have.”

Once Kuethe made the decision to join Morgan, he sold everything he owned except his car and some clothes and drove from Montana to Arizona. “[Matt] and I rented a little apartment together and started applying for licenses, looking for buildings,” Kuethe says. “And my very first introduction to the cannabis industry was with our company—they’re now called Bloom.”

While the original team had no titles, that eventually changed as the company solidified itself, according to Kuethe.

Kevin Kuethe and his mother, Kim Lugthart, meeting at a tearoom in Missoula, Mont. Meeting in tearooms in various locations has been a custom the mother and son have developed over the years.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Kuethe

“After we became a real company, Matt was the chief executive officer, I was the chief operating officer, and Frank Horowitz was our CTO. Between us, we started to trudge forward and design and develop what became Bloom. From three of us, I think we grew to 110 people in six months. It was such explosive growth. That was a wild ride.

“I had never hired people in volume like that,” Kuethe says. “I had never dealt with a regulatory body. And Arizona is regulated by the health department. I had none of that experience. I still laugh because my very first grow was 610 lights or something. It was gigantic. Trying to hire and train people for something you’re just learning about is a difficult task, so the learning curve for me was so steep and so fast in the very beginning.”

This was when he first frequented the local Barnes & Noble, absorbing everything he could as quickly as possible.

“Kevin is probably one of the smartest people I know,” Mallas says. “He really takes the time to dig into the gritty details and learn his craft. In cannabis, it’s not just knowing about cannabis. There are so many other things that you have to know a whole hell of a lot about, especially in a cultivation facility.”

Kuethe’s time at Bloom is also where he learned the value of letting colleagues “spread their wings,” he says. When new opportunities came up for both Kuethe and Morgan, the two ended up parting ways, but have remained friends.

“I had gone to California and Oregon and a couple of other states, and ended up in Nevada with my own cultivation and processing license,” Kuethe says. “It wasn’t until then that I got introduced to GB Sciences; they had seen some of my other facilities.”

When Kuethe left Bloom, he says Morgan was supportive and encouraged him to pursue new opportunities. “I took that with me, and I still apply that today to ... employees I have. The last thing I want to do is to hold somebody down,” Kuethe says. “Even if that means at the end of the day they’re going to work for someone else, that’s okay.”

Kuethe’s fearlessness of the unknown and learning on the fly inspired him to include a research and development area as he and his team designed and built out its cultivation operation.

Inside Lume’s Evart, Mich., facility.

“The R&D lab—that’s all Kevin’s vision, and the team all contributed,” Hellyar says.

Kuethe’s vision goes beyond the lab, though. It harkens back to his quest to find the best root beer float combination in existence.

“Part of the reason I’ve had some success is because I don’t just read and believe. I test it myself and collect real data and then make decisions,” he says. ”I try not to just listen to what people tell me and follow the pack, because then you get bunched up with everybody else. There’s no leader in the pack then.”

Kuethe says he also likes to learn from university professors and researchers, such as Dr. Bruce Bugbee of Utah State University. “I absolutely try to attach to people like that and bounce ideas off of [them].”

Being compelled to try new things and gain new insights from industry experts has had a direct impact on the cultivation operation, Kuethe says. To advance from producing 2 pounds per light to 4 pounds at half the cost, “it takes risks,” he says. “It takes progression. It takes humility. You have to know what you don’t know … and run with it.”

That motivation and Kuethe’s can-do attitude inspires others while also challenging them, Mallas says. “He’s like, ‘We can do everything.’ So, we’re like, ‘All right, I guess we’re doing everything.’ The downside of that is everybody’s got a lot of work to do in order to keep up,” he says with a laugh.

To help keep the team motivated under hefty workloads, Kuethe relies on team-building activities from barbecues to paint ball to going out for drinks after work. And not surprisingly, one of Kuethe’s favorite ways to motivate the team involves the word “yes.”

“I do like the ‘yes’ thing a lot. It feels really good,” Kuethe says. “You just go around the room and have everybody either say the word ‘yes’ or something that means ‘yes.’ Then you go faster and faster, and louder and louder. It just builds up—the positivity. You can see it.”

“That high energy, that optimism, that’s just him,” Mallas says. “He’s like that all the time. It’s not a fleeting moment. He is just unapologetically Kevin, that same person, all the time, and there is something to be said about that.”

Noelle Skodzinski is editorial director for Cannabis Business Times.