Brett Stevens Lights It Up
As Fohse earns the no.19 ranking of fastest growing private companies, the lighting juggernaut’s leader says he’s just getting started.
A poster of a Lamborghini on his childhood wall says all you need to know about Brett Stevens. The man knows what he wants and gets it done. The CEO and co-founder of Fohse, the white-hot lighting company that has wowed the cannabis industry and made Stevens nothing short of a rock star, drove up to his office on his day off in a $550,000 silver Lamborghini with his girlfriend. Somehow pulling off the look consisting of turquoise shorts, brown sandals and black Fohse T-shirt, the not-quite-yet-40-year-old isn’t resting on any laurels. Despite his undeniable success at Fohse, he still puts in the time and clearly wants more.
Stevens came into an industry that was pre-set and showed how it could be done differently with best-in-class standards and the results are self-evident: Cannabis growers seemingly cannot get enough of Fohse lighting for cultivation.
Calling itself the future of horticultural science and engineering, Fohse is the leading manufacturer of high-performance LED grow lights that increase productivity from 30 to 60 percent. And Stevens isn’t stopping at cannabis. He and his team are developing technology that he expects to boost food production around the world. That, of course, would be a global game changer.
Born on a military base, the son of a US Marine, the Stevens family, which consisted of nine siblings, moved from the sunshine of San Diego to an Iowa farm when he was ten. They raised pigs, cows, horses, ponies, chickens and grew wheat, hay and leased land for soybean production. Stevens grew up with a strong work ethic crystalized by his ritual of getting up at 5am during his middle school and high school years to clean pig pens and any number of farm chores. In the summer months, Stevens worked in the fields.
Stevens’ roots as an entrepreneur started early and at 21 he opened a club and soon bought another. He eventually sold them and used the profit to pursue his passion to fight mixed martial arts. It took an injury and finding a fighter to take his place in Ireland where he made a couple of thousand dollars before he realized that he could manage fighters (and not get beaten up in the process). It was his first multimillion-dollar company he started in his early 20s which he again sold in 2007.
Stevens went back to fighting, managing fighters and doing other ventures before seeing another business opportunity a decade ago to sell makeup at music festivals under the brand Plur.
All the requisite late nights, the heavy partying and constant traveling by bus across the county took a heavy toll on Stevens. He moved to Las Vegas in 2014 and pressed “pause” to all of the eclectic madness when some friends got busted for weed and went to prison. With the money he made from his makeup business, Stevens contemplated his next move.
“We always wanted to get into cannabis,” Stevens tells me as we sit in his Las Vegas office. “We’ve been working in the cannabis industry essentially while we were doing other things, and that’s why they got arrested.”
In 2015, Stevens launched Fohse. It came about from investing in a local motorcycle shop when he met someone in the cannabis industry seeking a medical license in Nevada. Stevens invested $1 million to build an indoor cultivation facility only to discover that Ben Arnet, an acquaintance of mutual friends, invested his money too. They would eventually hook up to launch Fohse.
“We knew right away that we’re pumping all the AC in the room just to cool the lights down and why don’t we just run an LED light,” Stevens said. “LEDs are the future, but there were only two or three companies making them at the time.”
When they first tried the LED lights, which didn’t work to their satisfaction, the business partners looked for a solution. They turned to an inventor friend of Arnet in Minnesota for a light that was high power, low energy consumption and would run cool below 100 degrees—what was considered a unicorn and took two years to come up with a fixture in 2017. At the time, everyone was running into the market with a cheap light that fell apart, but Stevens said they wanted to bring the industry something that would create value.
“We both divested from everything we had,” Stevens said. “We sold our cars and lived in a house where we worked together. It took millions of dollars to get this company off the ground, and the only people putting money in it were Ben and me. We put $2.6 million into the company before we even saw a dollar back. We put all of our chips in and then sat there and waited.”
And what a wait it was.
“We knew we were coming in with something that was market disrupting, and we knew we were coming to the market with the most high-end and premium fixture in the world,” Stevens said. “We put a ton of time and money into testing everything. It’s a 1,500-watt light that nobody had anything like in the industry.”
Fohse’s first sale in 2017 was a $21 million contract in Canada spread out over four years. Overall, the company delivered $14 million in lights in 2018, $28 million in 2020, $40 million in 2020 and $50 million in 2021. The company is on track to do more than $70 million in 2022 and could soon approach $100 million, Stevens said.
Today, Fohse works with many large cannabis companies, including those owned by celebrities—NFL player Calvin Johnson, actor Jim Belushi, boxing champion Mike Tyson, singer Toby Keith, actors Cheech and Chong and many others. All of Fohse’s success came after the founders turned down a $40 million check for the company before it sold one light. The duo wanted to run the company and weren’t in it for that amount of money, Stevens said.
“The reason why our light is so popular is because it does what it says it’s going to do,” Stevens said. “It actually grows more products than our clients did before. It’s reliable, and it’s built like a tank. It’s not like a cheap private label, but this light has been drawn from the ground up by guys who are insanely passionate about it. We’re not the most profitable company. We could build our projects cheaper and make way better margins, but we don’t want to. We want to make the best product in the world and make sure every single time we hang our lights, people come back and say ‘those are the best lights we ever hung. That was the best investment we ever made.’”
With an eye towards philanthropy, Stevens says Fohse has donated to groups advocating for legalization, but the focus remains on The Last Prisoner Project, an organization dedicated to cannabis criminal reform. The company is also concerned with the planet as it strives to leave a low- or no-carbon footprint in its wake. Fohse donates a portion of the its profits to pro-Earth charities.
And speaking of charitable work, Stevens says Fohse is prepared to help in a more significant way. “We want to go beyond cannabis and feed countries,” he says. “I want to grow kale, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers and every microgreen ever made and everything that grows. I want to build specific lights to grow every single specific plant in a way that’s most beneficial to that plant and most efficiently like we’ve done with cannabis. We’re in an organic farm in Nevada, and we’re crushing it right now.”
Stevens was born to be an entrepreneur given his start at an early age and says he’s confident his 18-year-old self would definitely approve of what he’s accomplished.
“He’d say I knew you were going to do it,” he says with a smile. “I had a picture of a Lamborghini, and I wanted it from the time I was in fourth grade. From the time I was little, I knew there were things I wanted to do. We struggled growing up. My parents had a lot of kids so for me as the oldest male, I always wanted to help my family. My dad was an entrepreneur. He was a very smart man. He started a magazine company and sold that. I saw him work on the farm and work so hard. I wanted to be the 2.0 version of that.”
Stevens said he—and Fohse—aren’t done yet, not even close. Fohse will always have its headquarters in Las Vegas, he says, but they’re looking at branching out to Florida, and he’s personally considering relocating to Europe next year. Stevens also wants to see Fohse reach $200 million revenue a year with a $1 billion exit strategy. He has other goals, too, like his desire to get married.
“I have a lot of things that I’m not ready to say. I have a lot of things I want to do that are big—big.”
Stevens is sitting near the top of the cannabis hill and shows no signs of coming down. Brett Stevens is lighting up every step of the way.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.