LivWell CEO and owner John Lord under the LED lights in a grow for the company in Denver on Feb. 4, 2016. Lord is one of the biggest owners in the marijuana industry in Colorado. (Cyrus McCrimmon)

Inside story on the accidental origins of Colorado cannabis giant LivWell

New Zealander John Lord never really wanted to sell pot. It just sort of worked out that way.

Now, one of Denver’s early pioneers of commercial marijuana growing and sales is among the most influential in an industry that’s quickly topping $1 billion in annual revenues.

And it all started over a rent check.

Lord had sold a baby products company, Basic Comfort, for $6.5 million in 2008. Then he rented out the Denver warehouse he once had used to store car safety seats to a small marijuana grow operation.

It looked like an easy check. It wasn’t.

“They were very disinterested,” he said of his tenants, whom he tried to mentor as entrepreneurs. “As the compliance noose got tighter, they went back to California because it was easier.”

Left with a warehouse of growing weed, Lord saw more of an opportunity than a liability.

“It sparked a chord as something new and entrepreneurial,” said Lord, 57. “I had no previous experience with marijuana. Never used it in my life. But what I saw was a new business, and that is a very rare thing.”

His experience in a heavily regulated industry — “baby products is one of the most litigious businesses around,” he said, not to mention compliance with the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission — made pot’s challenges seem manageable.

“The industry is getting way more sophisticated,” Lord said. “Initially, it wasn’t the competition but the people who weren’t at all prepared for it. The industry is growing up.”

Lord owns LivWell Enlightened Health, one of the largest marijuana businesses in Colorado. He is tops among city licensees in the number of licenses he holds alone — 43. No partners.

With 14 Colorado stores, six of them in Denver, LivWell is eyeing its first out-of-state property. And the pot behemoth isn’t stopping there.

“We recently formed LivWell Oregon,” Lord said just after LivWell finished a fourth Colorado store opening in as many weeks.

He dresses like a grandfather, moves smoother than many men half his age and loves showing off the pot-growing operation and the knowledge he has accumulated.

But new-found success hasn’t been without a few stumbles for this farming native of Otorohanga and Te Awamutu, about 100 miles south of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island.

LivWell was sued in August 2014 for allegedly distributing marijuana-infused chocolates — instead of the noninfused chocolates it intended to give away as samples — to visitors at that year’s Denver County Fair. The case was settled.

LivWell paid a $135,000 fine to state regulators over the mishap and fired a few employees.

In February 2015, LivWell had more than 60,000 plants put on hold because its growers had used potentially dangerous pesticides banned for use on marijuana. All of the plants eventually were released, but Lord moved the company to pesticides certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute.

Now, LivWell has “40-odd people in compliance alone,” Lord said, and its new chief operations officer, John Seckman, is a former police officer and agent-in-charge at the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, LivWell’s regulator.

Lord’s son Michael works with him on mergers and acquisitions, and Lord has even latched on to a few key proponents, including rapper Snoop Dogg.

The partnership for growing and selling Leafs by Snoop debuted in November at an extravagant party at Lord’s suburban Denver home — complete with Snoop loading bowls of his product for attendees and DJing for 45 minutes in Lord’s living room.

Although he now uses cannabis extract to ease the pain of an old rugby injury to a knuckle, Lord says his “drug of choice” is wine, much of it from his own winery.

Still a fan of snowboarding and an occasional tarpon-fishing trip, Lord is keen on the future.

“We’ve built out our grow operation,” he said of the 140,000-square-foot facility. “That’s where the money is.”

Ricardo Baca: 303-954-1394

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