Alltech’s business strategy is to embrace change, not fight it

May 20, 2014

Alltech1Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, left, presented the Humanitarian Award to Lopez Lomong at Alltech’s symposium Monday. Lomong was kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at 6, but eventually became two-time Olympic runner. Photo by Tom Eblen

Nobody likes change — it’s human nature. Kentuckians seem especially averse to it, which is ironic considering our heritage.

Two centuries ago, the pioneering risk-takers who came to Kentucky seeking a better life were on the cutting edge of change in America. But their adventurous spirit was soon replaced by a cautious, conservative mindset.

Too many Kentuckians fear innovation, mistrust higher education, deny science and instinctively oppose new ideas and ways of doing things. That is one reason I attend the Alltech Symposium each May. It is always an eye-opener.

The 30th annual Alltech Symposium, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday, brought 1,700 people from 59 nations to Lexington Center. The theme was “What If?”

The discussions — simultaneously translated into four languages — revolved around a question no less audacious than how a world of 9 billion people will feed itself in the year 2050.

Alltech began in a suburban Lexington garage in 1980. The privately held animal nutrition, food and beverage company now has operations in 128 countries and annual sales of $1 billion. The company’s energetic founder and president, Pearse Lyons, who turns 70 in August, has set a sales goal of $4 billion through growth and acquisition during his lifetime.

Lyons is not a native Kentuckian, but perhaps the next closest thing: an Irishman. Alltech has been wildly successful because Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, have used their complementary skills to create a company that tries to embody the strengths and avoid the shortcomings of both cultures.

“Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies,” Lyons said, noting that both Kentuckians and the Irish have often been stereotyped as backward.

Alltech’s often-contrarian approach to business is about problem-solving through science, education, innovation, sustainability, creativity, challenging boundaries and anticipating global needs. “We’ve built a business by walking the road less traveled,” he said.

Alltech’s science is based on natural ingredients and processes. That has been controversial, because many corporate agriculture models rely heavily on artificial chemicals. But the strategy has become a plus with consumers who worry about food safety and nutrition.

Lyons said Alltech’s stand against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals has cost it customers, but is simply common sense in light of scientific evidence of the problems caused by antibiotic abuse. “My mum used to say common sense is the rarest sense out there,” he said.

Lyons is equally forthright about the scientific evidence of man’s role in climate change. “The carbon footprint issue is with us to stay,” he said. “Those of us who embrace it will be successful.”

Because he spends so much time traveling around the world, Lyons brings valuable international perspectives to an often insular state. That has made him more open to new ideas, and, he thinks, more cognizant than most Kentuckians of the state’s unrealized economic potential.

Kentucky is already a globally recognized brand, thanks to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon whiskey. Lyons thinks it is the best state brand in the nation. “The name that resonates, the name that people like, is Kentucky,” he said. “It’s open. It’s warm.”

That has certainly been true for Kentucky Ale, which Alltech began producing in Lexington in 2006 and is now sold in 20 states and four other countries.

Alltech this week unveiled big plans for Eastern Kentucky: a brewery and distillery in Pikeville, whose waste heat and grain byproducts will then be used for raising fish in tanks. Alltech has been studying this at its Nicholasville headquarters.

“The question is this: What are we going to do when we can’t get all those fish from the oceans?” he said. “Where poultry is today, many predict the aquaculture industry will be in five, 10, 15 years, and we propose to be right out there.”

Alltech plans to produce trout, chickens and eggs in Eastern Kentucky and brand them to the region. “We don’t need to be in Kentucky,” Lyons said, noting that 98 percent of Alltech’s revenues come from outside the state. “But Kentucky’s still a great place to do business.”

Alltech embraces big problems, Lyons said, because the flip side of every problem is a business opportunity for solving it.

“I’m a scientist at the end of the day, and scientists look for solutions,” he said. “If we put our heads in the sand, we’re never going to achieve anything.”

From kidnap at 6 to Olympic glory, Lomong tells story at Alltech

May 19, 2014


Lopez Lomong, right, received the Humanitarian Award at Alltech’s 30th annual symposium today in Lexington from the company’s founder and president, Pearse Lyons. Lomong told of being kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at age 6, escaping and after 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp coming to America where he became a two-time Olympic runner and carried the U.S. flag at the 2008 Beijing Games. “Don’t be afraid of failure,” Lomong told the symposium’s 1,700 attendees from 59 nations. “Failure is just a challenge to succeed next time.” Photos by Tom Eblen


Alltech Symposium offers glimpse of the future of food production

May 27, 2013


José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, left, shaved ham as Lucas Montero served cheese to attendees at Alltech’s annual international symposium in Lexington on Tuesday. They represent Ibericos COVAP, a line of traditional Spanish gourmet products produced by a farmers’ co-op near Córdoba, Spain. Photo by Tom Eblen


I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington’s biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.

Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.

This year’s symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.

Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.

The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech’s approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.

This year’s symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.

Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world’s largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company’s needs.

Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.

The symposium’s theme this year was “Glimpse the future in 2020.” In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.

“Enough is enough,” the regulatory session’s thesis statement said. “If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation.”

Alltech thinks successful businesses won’t just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.

My favorite booth at the symposium’s World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers’ cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.

The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.

“We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area,” said the co-op’s director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.

Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.

Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.

This year’s symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech’s customers find value in the symposium’s educational sessions and networking opportunities.

“What we’re striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation,” said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. “There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together.”

Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.

The privately held company doesn’t release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.

Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.

Lessons from two of Kentucky’s top entrepreneurs

May 28, 2012

More than 400 local business leaders packed a Lexington Center ballroom last Tuesday to hear lectures encouraging entrepreneurship in Kentucky from two of the state’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Jim Host, the founder of Host Communications and now chief executive of, and Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, told their personal stories, talked about why Kentucky needs more entrepreneurs and offered their personal tips for success.

I know how much business people love lists of success tips, so I will share those later. First, though, I want to discuss why, beyond their obvious success, Host and Lyons are worth your attention.

Both are classic, hard-charging entrepreneurs. They are keen observers of business and society. Not only do they embrace change, they try to anticipate and drive it. They know that people always want better ways to satisfy their needs and desires, and in that space are great business opportunities. They know how to make things happen.

Jim Host

Host is a home-grown success story. He moved to Ashland as a boy and has spent most of his life in Kentucky, including serving in state government and running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor early in his career.

Host created world-class companies in travel, sports marketing and communications. Now he is trying to create the future of television. Host never felt he needed to move elsewhere to succeed. More importantly, he never allowed his vision to be limited by Kentucky’s cultural aversion to change.

Most recently, Host led the effort to build Louisville’s KFC Yum Center arena, despite being a blue-bleeding University of Kentucky alumnus and fan. Working in Louisville underscored for him the foolishness of allowing intrastate rivalries to obstruct progress.

Host, 74, has become an evangelist for Louisville-Lexington cooperation. He was founding chairman of the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, a new effort led by both cities’ mayors to bring more advanced-manufacturing jobs to Kentucky.

Lyons’ story is different. Born, reared and educated in Ireland, he came to Kentucky in 1974 because he thought it was a great place to start a business.

Pearse Lyons

Alltech began with the idea of developing and making all-natural animal nutrition supplements. Now, the company’s goal is no less than figuring out how to feed the world using natural ingredients and breakthrough technology, not to mention making good beer and whiskey on the side. Privately held Alltech now has 3,000 employees in 128 countries, including more than 500 in Kentucky.

Part of what makes Lyons worth watching is that he has figured out how to embrace and build upon Kentucky’s strengths without feeling limited by its traditional shortcomings. He is bullish about Kentucky’s potential. He took a “Kentucky Proud” road show to England’s Windsor Castle. Alltech is selling Bourbon Barrel Ale in China and, soon, in Ireland. Alltech just launched the Lyons Farm brand of premium meats, which have a distinct Kentucky marketing flavor.

“If you can’t sell Kentucky as a place to do business, then you’re not in any shape or form a salesman, because it’s an easy sale,” Lyons said. “I’ve been around the world I don’t know how many times, and I’ve never found a place as conducive to doing business or rearing a family as Kentucky — y’all.”

Now, about those success tips. Both entrepreneurs stressed the importance of having a positive attitude, passion for your work, a willingness to take risks, a confidence in self and a good sense of humor.

Among Host’s success tips:

■ Be prepared. Eighty percent of any sale is preparation; 20 percent is presentation.

■ Under-promise and over-deliver.

■ Do not lie or misrepresent to a client about anything. “You build great companies on integrity and character,” he said.

■ Write down the five most important things you need to do each day, and do the hardest one first. That will clear your head for creative thinking.

■ If you focus on creating excellence, profits will follow.

Among Lyons’ success tips:

■ Take a chance, any chance, to start a business. And, if possible, go it alone. You can never truly align partners’ dreams with your own.

■ Be curious and add to your expertise, both through your own education and by hiring great people.

■ Avoid negative people, whom he called “energy vampires.”

■ Be prepared to change your business, but not your core values.

■ You have two ears, one mouth; listen more than you talk, and take notes.


Alltech announced job-creation competition

May 22, 2012

Alltech announced a job-creation competition Tuesday for business students at the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and University of Pikeville, with a $20,000 prize for the winning school.

Pearse Lyons, president and founder of the Nicholasville-based animal nutrition company, said the business plan competition is focused on fostering innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development in nine Eastern Kentucky counties: Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike.

“It’s time to balance the scales and cultivate a Kentucky that leads the nation not just in college sports but in employment as well,” Lyons said, noting that many of the targeted counties have unemployment rates twice the national average.

“With its hardworking people, vibrant culture, picturesque landscape and abundance of natural resources, Kentucky is ripe for the right idea,” Lyons said. “What we need is innovation and inspiration — sparks that will kindle the economic flame.”

Lyons announced the competition during a free seminar on entrepreneurship in the state that he and veteran Kentucky entrepreneur Jim Host put on at Lexington Center. It attracted a capacity crowd of more than 400 people, including many Central Kentucky business leaders.

The seminar was held in conjunction with Alltech’s 28th annual International Symposium, which each spring brings a couple thousand of the company’s customers here from all over the world.

Officials at each university will choose a competition team from among master’s in business administration students and some undergraduates. The competition will run from November through January 2013, when students will present their final plans to a panel of business leaders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

The winning plan will be the one that best fosters economic development in the nine-county region and appeals to investors interested in funding it. The winning team will receive $20,000 from Alltech for their university’s business school.

Alltech’s CEO focuses on another green: algae

February 21, 2011

Pearse Lyons has seen the future, and it is pond scum.

Scientists call it algae, and the founder and president of Alltech thinks the simple, fast-growing plants have the potential to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems: hunger, energy and climate change.

Lyons also thinks algae will help his privately held biotechnology company achieve its goal of $1 billion in annual sales within five years.

Alltech is hosting an invitation-only algae seminar Tuesday through Thursday in Lexington. “It’s to educate people about algae and what all the opportunities and possibilities are,” said Becky Timmons, Alltech’s director of applications research and quality assurance.

The conference also will be an opportunity to show off Alltech Algae, a new facility beside Interstate 64 near Winchester that by April will become one of the world’s largest algae factories.

Alltech bought the plant — built in the 1980s to ferment yeast using whey produced by an adjacent dairy — from Martek Biosciences Corp. last year for $14 million. Since then, the Nicholasville-based company has invested more than $2 million in improvements. Alltech will use the 15-acre facility to research, develop and produce many kinds of algae.

Most of that algae will be used to create new product lines for Alltech’s primary business: animal nutritional supplements. The company now makes those products from yeast, bacteria, enzymes and other natural substances.

But when Lyons announced plans for Alltech Algae at his annual international symposium in Lexington last May, he outlined a much grander vision.

“Algae is the way forward,” Lyons said, predicting that it will become a major source of nutrients for both animals and people, as well a source of biomass fuel for energy production. After all, much of the fossil fuel we use today was created from fossilized algae.

Lyons also thinks algae could be a big part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions created from burning fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. That is because algae can absorb twice its weight in carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen.

Indeed, scientists believe algae originally played a key role in creating earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. “We think, just like four billion years ago, algae will be the future,” Lyons said.

Much processed human food in this country already includes some form of algae supplement, often as a thickener or stabilizer, Timmons said. Many of the approximately 10 million species of algae are high in proteins, minerals, vitamins, starches or oils that have many uses — and potentially many more uses that nobody has figured out yet.

Algae also has a huge advantage over other crops: it grows faster than anything else, which explains why algae scum flourishes in nutrient-rich farm ponds.

Kyle Raney, who will head product development at Alltech Algae, held up a tiny vial containing 1.5 thousandths of a liter of algae culture. Grown in the right conditions, he said, that culture will become 265,000 liters of algae within a week or two.

Alltech’s new production facility will be fully automated and computer-controlled. It also will have a research laboratory and a pilot plant that can mimic production on a smaller scale. When operating at full capacity, the plant will employ about 50 people.

Algae will be grown in giant fermentation tanks, then air-dried into a powder that will leave the plant in bags. Production will run continuously, with estimated annual output of 6,000 to 10,000 tons of algae powder. The only byproducts of the process are water and gases, which the facility will recycle.

Outside of the facility, the company has been running a test project with East Kentucky Power Cooperative using algae to remove carbon dioxide and other substances from flu gas created when coal is burned to generate electricity.

“It’s all about new opportunities and new solutions,” said Dan Haney, Alltech’s director of manufacturing, of Alltech Algae. “It’s about sustainability for the future.”

And it is all about business, something Alltech seems to do very well.

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The Chieftains & friends boost Haiti aid effort

October 5, 2010

Pearse Lyons was a busy man when the earthquake shook Haiti in January; he was running a global biotechnology company and getting ready to host the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

But Lyons was shaken, too. After flying down to see the devastation for himself, the founder and president of Nicholasville-based Alltech decided the best thing he could do for Haiti was to create jobs to help the long-impoverished nation build a sustainable future.

The company started a Haitian fair-trade coffee business, adopted a school and worked with the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program to create a children’s choir, bringing 24 children up to sing at the Games.

If there was any doubt that Alltech’s Haitian Harmony project has taken on a life of its own, you just had to be at UK’s Singletary Center on Tuesday night when the world-famous Irish band The Chieftains and their musical friends from Ireland, Lexington, Nashville, New York and Canada joined with the singing Haitian children for a benefit concert that rocked the house.

“When you get an invitation like this, you can’t refuse,” said Paddy Moloney, who has led The Chieftains for nearly a half-century. “This was our way to help. The thing hasn’t gone away; (Haiti’s) just as bad as ever.

“It’s a pity we didn’t have another day to rehearse so we could have done some Haitian music,” Moloney said, adding with a wink: “But it was a hell of a show.”

Lyons said Moloney and friends agreed to donate their services after Shane Ryan, who owns Lexington’s Castleton Lyons farm and Europe’s biggest discount airline, Ryanair, agreed to fly The Chieftains over from Ireland on a private jet. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who performed at the Games’ opening ceremonies, returned from a gig in Florida to join the benefit.

“We had a meeting of the Irish minds,” Lyons said, adding that his brothers John and Lorcan helped with the arrangements. The Chieftains got to see the Games’ cross-country competition Saturday before a private dinner downtown with Ireland’s equestrian team.

“The hospitality has been just amazing,” Moloney said.

The concert raised more than $53,000 from donations and sales of tickets and Haitian coffee, but Lyons said the most important thing was raising awareness of the project.

The children’s choir returns to Haiti on Thursday, and Lyons and UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey have been thinking the same thing many others have: How will these children ever be able to cope back home after having such an amazing trip?

“I have a personal responsibility for these 24 children,” Lyons said. “There’s an outpouring of compassion for these children, but at the end of it we have to give them a future. They will have an education. We will follow through.”

There is talk of scholarship funds for them and others, of a traveling choir and ways to expand the concept to other Haitian schools, but nothing has been decided. With this concert and others, Lyons hopes to have recruited lots of help.

“The audience was really with us,” Lyons said, “and that was the important thing.”

Alltech pitches WEG media on Haiti relief project

September 30, 2010

Alltech threw a party at its Kentucky Ale Brewery downtown Thursday night for journalists covering the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Alltech President Pearse Lyons used the opportunity to pitch the company’s efforts to help Haiti.

Lyons promoted the company’s Haiti-grown coffee, Café Citadelle, and offered a performance by a Haitian children’s choir, which sang at the Games’ opening ceremony Saturday night and will appear with the Irish super band The Chieftains next week.

Alltech has adopted the children’s school in the city of Ouanaminthe, and profits from Café Citadelle will help create jobs in the city. Alltech began the effort after the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation.

Haitian children’s choir tours the Games

September 26, 2010

The children’s choir from Haiti that came to sing at opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Saturday night got a tour of the Alltech Experience pavilion Sunday afternoon.

After enjoying activities in the kids’ area and some Dippin Dots ice cream, they took a turn on Alltech’s outdoor enterainment stage. They sang “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” as pavilion spectators and members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra looked on.

“The kids are having a great time,” said University of Kentucky Opera Theatre Director Everett McCorvey, who started the choir after Alltech President Pearse Lyons adopted the children’s school in the Haitian city of Ouanaminthe following the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the already impoverished country. “They are learning so much.”

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Equestrian Games reach the home stretch

June 21, 2010

After years of talk and preparation, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games begin in only 96 days. Are we ready?

The short answer is no, but we seem to be getting there.

With revenue below projections, Games organizers are scrambling to sell more tickets, get creative with sponsorships and trim operating costs.

As part of a major ticket-sales push, title sponsor Alltech has created a toll-free line — 1-888-934-2010 — where people can get ticket information from Alltech employees, who know more about the Games than the average Ticketmaster operator.

Alltech President Pearse Lyons recently launched the Commonwealth Club, which offers perks to people, companies and groups that buy at least $10,000 worth of tickets. They will get special-access credentials, straw hats and hospitality in a VIP area at Alltech’s pavilion.

John Long, chairman of the Games and CEO of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, said tickets to event finals are selling well and should sell out before the Games. But sales aren’t so hot for many preliminary competitions. Long said additional ticket options and packages will be announced during the next two weeks.

“I want to be able to look out and see not one seat empty,” Long said Thursday as festivities were beginning at Cheapside Park to mark 100 days to go. “We’re looking for ways to sell every single ticket.” Failing that, organizers plan to build fewer temporary seats at some venues.

Games tickets aren’t cheap. They might be an especially hard sell to average Kentuckians who know little or nothing about such equestrian sports as reining, vaulting and dressage. This isn’t basketball or Thoroughbred racing, after all.

Figuring out a way to get more local, paying customers into the stands might be the Games’ biggest challenge. But organizers stress that the atmosphere at the Kentucky Horse Park will be more like an international festival than a horse show.

For those just wanting to take in the scene without having seats to an event, daily grounds passes are on sale for $25 — free for children 12 and younger when accompanied by an adult.

The economy has made it harder to attract sponsors, Long said. For example, who would have thought three years ago that the Games couldn’t attract an automobile company sponsorship? Still, Long insists, 90 percent of the sponsorship budget has been met.

Part of the problem with ticket sales, Long says, is that people are waiting until the last minute. He also says European sales will pick up after World Cup soccer is over. We’ll see.

City officials are scurrying to finish street repairs and new sidewalks to handle the people expected to flock downtown to dine, drink and attend Spotlight Lexington events at venues such as Cheapside, Triangle Park and Courthouse Plaza.

Since the completion of the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion, Cheapside has become the place to be downtown. The Thursday Night Live event put on by Downtown Lexington Corp. and Central Bank is drawing several thousand people each week — three or four times the crowds of previous summers.

In addition to the Spotlight festival, Alltech last week announced some big-name talent that will be joining regional performers at its Fortnight Festival during the Games. They include the Vienna Philharmonic, Little Feat, Tony Bennett, The Temptations, Chubby Checker, Marvin Hamlisch, the Beach Boys and Charlie Daniels.

I have never been to a World Equestrian Games, but I have covered the Winter and Summer Olympics and two World’s Fairs. There is always a lot of scrambling in the final weeks to make everything work, but it usually does.

I don’t think most people here have a sense yet of just how big a deal these Games will be. International events like this always seem to have a transformative effect on the place they are held. That’s hard to appreciate until long after the event has come and gone.

“In the end,” Long said. “I think Lexington and Kentucky will emerge from this with a sense of confidence that we were on the world stage for 16 days and we pulled it off.”

Alltech, UK Opera join forces to help Haiti

June 12, 2010

About 10 days after a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, Pearse Lyons decided to go take a look. He flew to the Dominican Republic, then took a helicopter into Haiti. “You don’t need to be there long to see the tragedy,” he said.

Like so many others, the founder and president of Alltech wanted to help. But he knew it would do little good in the long run to throw more aid money into one of the world’s poorest, most-beleaguered countries.

What Haiti needed, Lyons thought, was sustainable economic development, jobs for its people and hope for its children. And because he is a businessman, Lyons thought that helping Haiti could also be good for his company, which mostly sells natural animal nutrition supplements in 120 countries.

Pearse Lyons

Pearse Lyons

After four months of work and a lot of help from friends, Lyons and Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program, sat down Friday to discuss their plans for Ouanaminthe, a city of 100,000 people near the border with the Dominican Republic in northeast Haiti.

Lyons’ company is buying 10 acres of land and plans to construct a new building for a local school with about 350 students. A new medical clinic and an Alltech factory that will initially employ 20 or 30 Haitians also will be built.

McCorvey and his graduate students plan to create Haitian Harmony, a music training program for the school’s children. Haiti has a strong music culture, and Alltech employees found when they visited the school that each classroom wanted to welcome them with a song.

McCorvey and his students plan to have a choir of 35 or so Haitian children organized in time to bring them to Lexington to perform at the opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Sept. 25.

He hopes the choir will eventually become like the African Children’s Choir, a touring ensemble that can draw global attention to Haiti’s needs — and potential. “These kids could get to do something for themselves and their country,” he said.

Lyons, who has made two more trips to Haiti since January, will be going back later this month with McCorvey to work on the project. UK Opera students Eric Brown, the first winner of the Alltech Vocal Competition in 2006, and Manuel Castillo also will go to begin the Haitian Harmony program. They will be joined later by other UK voice students.

Alltech has a long history of setting up businesses in distant lands. This venture makes sense, Lyons said, because although Alltech has no facilities in the Dominican Republic, it sells about $2 million worth of products there each year. Most of those products are made in the United States or Brazil, but there is no reason they couldn’t be made in Haiti instead.

“When could you find a situation where your first order is for $2 million?” Lyons said. “That’s the sustainability part of it. And I think that $2 million will quickly become $4 million, where otherwise it might have become just $2.2 million without this focus.”

Everett McCorvey

Everett McCorvey

Alltech chose Ouanaminthe for its efforts on the advice of local business contacts and Catholic missionaries. Because the city is in a part of the country less damaged by the quake, it is more ready for economic development.

The Alltech plant will begin by hiring Haitians to mix animal nutrition supplements from concentrates. “It’s a pretty manual process,” said Dan Haney, Alltech’s director of manufacturing. The company already has the equipment it needs, sitting in a warehouse in Springfield.

Lyons envisions other Alltech business opportunities that could employ Haitians. For example, the company buys several hundred pounds of coffee to produce its new Bluegrass Sundown bourbon-and-coffee drink. “Why couldn’t that coffee be grown in Haiti?” he said.

“There is a branding opportunity here, and it is a branding opportunity with a cause,” Lyons said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Alltech’s initial business and philanthropic investment in Haiti will be about $500,000, which includes $100,000 donated by Alltech employees and matched by the company. Other money is coming from Alltech suppliers and customers. Lyons also is getting help from a fellow Irishman, Denis O’Brien, who owns Haiti’s main telecom company, Digicel.

Lyons and McCorvey see the potential for creating close ties between Lexington and Haiti — economic, cultural and human. “This project could be life-changing for them,” McCorvey said, “and maybe for all of us.”

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Alltech sees value in developing Kentucky brand

May 19, 2010

I like Pearse Lyons’ beer, but I like his thinking even better.

This week, the founder and president of Alltech has attracted 1,500 people from 50 countries to Lexington Center for the 26th annual Alltech International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium.

This fall, he hopes to attract more than 250,000 people from even more countries to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Lyons is a successful entrepreneur because he recognizes opportunities — and acts on them. He and his wife, Deirdre, emigrated from Ireland and have spent 30 years building a global brand based in Central Kentucky that does business in 120 countries.

Until a few years ago, few Kentuckians had ever heard of Alltech. That’s because most of its business was creating and marketing all-natural animal nutrition supplements.

Public awareness of Alltech has grown with its range of consumer products, which now include Dippin’ Dots ice cream, Kentucky Ale, Bourbon Barrel Ale, the Alltech Angus brand of Kentucky-raised beef, and Kentucky Sundown, a bourbon-and-coffee drink. Alltech will be selling bourbon as soon as the first batch has aged enough.

Alltech’s biggest advertising vehicle is its title sponsorship of the World Equestrian Games. Lyons said that when he was approached about the sponsorship, he quickly realized the $10 million cost would be a smart investment. Since then, Lyons said, he has put an additional $12 million into leveraging that investment, and will spend yet another $10 million or so before the Games are over.

One thing I find interesting about Alltech is that Lyons doesn’t see himself as being just in the animal nutrition business, or even the food and drink business. He sees himself as being in the business of using scientific research, creative thinking, innovation and good marketing to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

Because Alltech is privately held and, according to Lyons, quite profitable, he has the resources to go after opportunities in a big way.

Much of the talk at this week’s Alltech symposium has been about using science and innovation to feed the world, make food supplies safer and agribusiness more environmentally sustainable. Lyons believes businesses that make people healthier and the environment cleaner will create long-term value.

Lyons announced Monday that Alltech will create the world’s second-largest algae factory in Kentucky, with the location and details to be revealed in August. He thinks pond scum, which can absorb twice its weight in carbon dioxide while producing bio fuels, could be a potent weapon for fighting climate change.

Another thing I find interesting about Alltech is Lyons’ belief in the potential of the “Kentucky” brand. He has gone to great lengths to partner with Kentucky’s world-class people and organizations. Sponsoring the World Equestrian Games was a logical step in that strategy.

At last year’s symposium, Lyons and Muhammad Ali announced a charitable and educational partnership. Alltech is a big supporter of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program, which under Everett McCorvey’s leadership has developed an international reputation.

This year’s Alltech symposium featured a talk on entrepreneurship by former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken. Brown was followed by Joaquin Pelaez, an executive with Louisville-based Yum Brands who now oversees KFC’s huge presence in China.

Lyons noted that KFC is better known in China than any other American brand, and the Chinese refer to it simply as “Ken-touch-ee.” If name recognition is half the battle in marketing, that’s quite a head start for any Kentucky company hoping to do business in the world’s most populous country.

I suspect this fall’s Games will leave its international audience with a favorable impression of both Alltech and Kentucky — a beautiful state that is home to a innovative company.

We could, and have, done a lot worse when it comes to the Kentucky brand. While there is much to admire in Kentucky, this state has a stubborn legacy of poverty, ignorance and environmental degradation.

If this transplanted Irishman sees so much potential value in the Kentucky brand, maybe the rest of us should, too. If we were Pearse Lyons, we would be thinking: how can we act on this opportunity?

Alltech plans large algae farm in Kentucky

May 17, 2010

Alltech President Pearse Lyons said Monday that his company will announce in August the creation of a large algae factory in Kentucky to make bio-fuel and research new approaches for mitigating climate change.

Lyons declined to give the location or other details of the facility because the deal is still being negotiated. He said it would be the nation’s second-largest algae factory, after one in South Carolina.

Lyons told about 1,500 people from 50 countries who came to Lexington Center for Alltech’s 26th annual International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium that algae shows great promise for helping humans cope with two big problems: energy and climate change.

That’s because 1 acre of algae can produce 5,000 gallons of bio-fuel per year, and 1 ton of algae can absorb 2 tons of carbon dioxide, converting it to oxygen and carbohydrates, Lyons said.

Alltech, which primarily makes animal nutrition supplements using natural ingredients, uses the symposium to interact with its customers in 120 countries. Based in Lexington, the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

In the opening sessions, Lyons and Jim Pettigrew, a University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign professor who won this year’s Alltech Bioscience Medal of Excellence, also talked about how research, education and sustainable technology can be used to improve global food production.

Human health and environmental sustainability demand that agribusiness use fewer antibiotics and more natural supplements to improve animal nutrition and immune systems, Lyons said. “We are what our animals ate,” he said.

Symposium attendees also heard Monday from former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who talked about how he worked with Col. Harland Sanders to franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then Joaquin Pelaez, a Mexico native who runs Louisville-based Yum Brands’ KFC operations in China, talked about how KFC has grown there.

Other sessions this week range from animal nutrition issues to global agri-business trends. Attendees also browse booths throughout the convention center where Alltech touts its products, which also include Kentucky Ale, Alltech Angus steaks and Dippin Dots ice cream. The company also has begun distilling bourbon.

On Monday night, attendees were to attend a dinner in the new indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park to hear about the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games there this fall.

Eric Roderick, who has been involved in tilapia fish farming in Wales since 1979 and is attending his first Alltech symposium, said the brand attracted him here. “The company has become such a big name in international aquaculture,” he said.

The title for this year’s symposium is “Bounce Back 2010,” which reflects both a desire for business to rebound from the global recession and the title of University of Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari’s book. Calipari will speak Wednesday.

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Pearse Lyons talks about Kentucky’s opportunities

August 6, 2009

There’s no zealot like a convert, and when it comes to believing in Kentucky’s potential, there’s none like Pearse Lyons.

The energetic Irishman, who moved to Lexington three decades ago and built his Alltech nutrition supplement company into a global giant, has a few thoughts about how the future could shine brighter on his new Kentucky home.

Lyons shared some of those thoughts Thursday with the Lexington Forum, telling the monthly gathering of business folks that the keys are education, innovation and building on Kentucky’s existing strengths and resources.

Lyons hopes to showcase many of those resources next fall, when his company sponsors the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.

But he’s getting a head start in Britain this month at the Alltech FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championships, Aug. 25-30.

More than 60,000 spectators and 150 competitors from 32 nations are expected to attend the games at Windsor Castle. One thing they’ll find, a short walk from the arena, is a Kentucky oasis.

The Alltech Kentucky Village, a tented area inside a white-plank fence, will give visitors a literal taste of Kentucky: burgoo, hot Browns, Maker’s Mark bourbon, Dippin’ Dots ice cream and, of course, Alltech’s Kentucky Ale and Bourbon Barrel Ale.

Everett McCorvey from the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program will direct a vocal ensemble. There also will be displays promoting Kentucky tourism and products.

Muhammad Ali and Pearse Lyons announced creation of the Alltech Muhammad Ali Center

Muhammad Ali and Pearse Lyons announced creation of the Alltech Muhammad Ali Center Global Education and Charitable Fund in Lexington in May. Alltech Photo

Lyons is taking Muhammad Ali to Windsor, thanks to the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Center Global Education and Charitable Fund. After that, Lyons and Ali head to Dublin for a fund-raising dinner and a visit to the Irish town one of Ali’s great-grandfathers left for America in the mid-1800s.

Lyons said he gets dizzy sometimes thinking about how an Irish lad of modest means could grow up to earn a Ph.D. and create a company with annual revenues of $500 million and a 35 percent profit margin — much less hobnob with people such as Ali and Queen Elizabeth II.

It all came down to education, entrepreneurship and taking advantage of opportunities. The same formula can work for Kentucky, too, he told the Lexington Forum.

Lyons noted that Kentucky and Ireland have many similarities. They’re both beautiful, mainly rural places with about 4 million people, rich heritage and a history of seeing their smart young people leave for opportunities elsewhere.

Ireland reversed its fortunes by focusing on education and innovation, and Kentucky can do the same.

This time of economic transition is when Kentucky should look for new opportunities and new ways of doing things, Lyons said.

For example, Kentucky should neither ignore its rich coal reserves, nor expect to continue mining and burning coal the old way, given environmental concerns and climate change. Instead, he said, Kentucky should be at the forefront of figuring out how to make coal more valuable “within the new rules and regulations.”

One way to do that is by focusing on carbon-capture research. Lyons thinks one solution could be algae — the fast-growing slime that produces two-thirds of the world’s oxygen by soaking up carbon dioxide.

Another opportunity is aquaculture, because Kentucky has enormous reserves of fresh water, much of it underground.

“Fish is an incredible opportunity for Kentucky,” he said. “Where the poultry industry is today, the fish industry will be tomorrow.”

Algae and aquaculture are two of many things Alltech researchers are working on.

“The possibilities for innovation are enormous,” Lyons said. But innovation requires education.

Lyons said Kentucky universities must develop programs that will retain the state’s own students and attract those from elsewhere. And he challenged Kentucky businesses to invest in education.

He said Alltech donates laboratories to schools and pays graduate students to earn Ph.D.s, do research for the company and stay in Kentucky after graduation.

While looking for new opportunities, Kentucky should continue developing signature industries such as bourbon and horses that already have infrastructure and international reputations. For example, one thing that led Alltech to develop its popular Bourbon Barrel Ale was Kentucky’s ready supply of used bourbon barrels.

Along with more focus on education, Lyons said, Kentucky needs leaders.

“The leader’s job is to bring uncertainty out and certainty in,” he said. “That’s what our state needs. Because in 20 years’ time the whole world is going to change. Which way? I’m not sure. But it’s going to change. And please God it will change, because therein lies our opportunity.”

Ali, the queen and another Kentucky connection

June 3, 2009

Pearse Lyons, the founder and president of Alltech, says he has arranged to take Muhammad Ali to England in August to meet Queen Elizabeth II.

His next mission: Persuade the queen to return to Kentucky in the fall of 2010 to attend the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Lyons talks with Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Windsor Horse Show last month. Alltech photo

Pearse Lyons talks with Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Windsor Horse Show last month. Alltech photo

Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, met the queen for the first time May 15 at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, on the grounds of ancient Windsor Castle, the British monarch’s weekend home just west of London.

Nicholasville-based Alltech is the title sponsor of both the 2010 Games at the Kentucky Horse Park and the Alltech FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championships, Aug. 25-30 at Windsor.

Thanks to a new charitable foundation that Alltech has created with the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Lyons said he has arranged to take the boxing icon to the horse show at Windsor.

After that, Lyons said, he hopes to take Louisville-born Ali to Lyons’ hometown of Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 30 for a fund-raiser he is organizing for the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Center Global and Charitable Fund.

Lyons and Ali announced the fund’s creation last month at Alltech’s 25th annual International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium, which brought more than 1,200 people from around the world to Lexington.

Muhammad Ali and Pearse Lyons announce the charitable fund last month in Lexington. Photo by Charles Bertram

Muhammad Ali and Pearse Lyons announce the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Center Global and Charitable Fund last month. Photo by Charles Bertram

Alltech launched the charitable fund with a $50,000 gift, and Lyons said several companies have indicated interest in supporting it. The goal is to raise $500,000 before the 2010 Games. The fund will support higher education scholarships and mentoring programs as well as humanitarian and disaster relief.

Lyons said he spent more than an hour with the queen at the horse show, chatting while they watched children compete on ponies. He said he talked about his new partnership with the Ali Center.

“She seemed particularly interested in Muhammad Ali,” he said. “And she’s very much into philanthropic things.”

He also made a pitch for her to return to Kentucky, which she has visited at least five times since 1984.

Lyons thinks there’s an especially good chance she will attend the 2010 Games if her granddaughter, Zara Phillips, who won the eventing championship at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, comes to Kentucky to defend her title.

Lyons could never be described as shy, but he said meeting the queen for the first time was intimidating, even though she was friendly and down-to-earth. Before they met, Lyons said, he thought a lot about how to begin the conversation.

“I told her, ‘Your majesty, I have been disappointed in you since 1953,'” Lyons said. “To which she replied, ‘Whatever for?’

“So I explained that as a young boy my brother and I went to London. My mum and dad were going on to France, and so they left us with an aunt of ours in London. And my aunt explained that she would bring us to see the queen and then we would have tea.”

It was the queen’s coronation day, but the Lyons boys just assumed they were having tea with her personally.

Instead, they were taken to the coronation parade, where they saw her ride by in a coach.

“I said, ‘I waved at you along with hundreds and thousands of others, and then we had tea in a tea shop.'” Lyons said.

“‘Oh, how disappointing,'” she said. “‘We shall have to rectify that.'”

Lyons doesn’t know if that means he will have tea with the queen when he returns to Windsor Castle in August. But if he has Muhammad Ali with him, the odds would seem better than they once were for an Irish lad of 8.

Kentucky vision: Education, innovation, branding

November 11, 2008

Kentucky’s potential for success in a global economy might not be obvious to people who have lived here all of their lives.

Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who heads the animal nutrition company Alltech, says he sees it. And he is convinced it can be achieved if Kentucky invests in education, focuses on scientific innovation and markets its brand.

Lyons is barnstorming the state this week to deliver that message in a series of public lectures. He began Monday in Glasgow, then drove to Murray and Owensboro. He plans to make six more speeches around the state Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dr. Pearse Lyons

Dr. Pearse Lyons

Lyons, who started Alltech in Jessamine County 28 years ago, said Kentucky has some of the same advantages that helped launch Ireland’s economy in the 1980s. Both places have about 4 million residents, and their governments and universities are small enough to be accessible.

Lyons thinks Kentucky needs more public-private partnerships to invest in education and innovation. He hopes other companies will join Alltech in funding Margin of Excellence scholarships at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville to attract and retain the bright minds who will create tomorrow’s technology.

Earning a Ph.D. degree often requires a student to study for five years while living on a $20,000 annual university stipend. After graduation, first jobs don’t pay much.

“Who in their right mind would do that?” Lyons asked during a telephone interview on the road between Glasgow and Murray. “Why does Ph.D. have to stand for Poor, Hungry and Driven?”

The Margin of Excellence scholarship provides a $40,000 annual stipend on top of the university money for up to five years, plus an additional $10,000 for published research and another $10,000 if the student stays in Kentucky for three years after graduation.

“We’ve stepped up and done the first one,” which went to UK animal nutrition student Anne Koontz, Lyons said. “We’ve got a couple of people to step up and do the second and third. What we need is like-minded business people and businesses to step up and say, ‘Let’s create the single best Ph.D. program in the world.'”

Lyons, whose company operates in 113 countries, said such scholarships could be an inexpensive way for companies to do critical research. “You couldn’t hire a technician for $40,000 a year,” he said. “And here you’re going to get the brightest and the smartest focusing on your problem. It’s a no-brainer.”

Technology could allow Kentucky to keep building on traditional strengths, such as agriculture and energy. For example, the horse industry could fund a Ph.D. student interested in figuring out how to capture methane from manure. Coal companies could fund students to study ways to create clean-coal technology by capturing carbon dioxide.

Despite the economic slump, Lyons thinks this is a good time for companies to invest in the future. For example, he said, Alltech has secured government grants to help build a bio-refinery in Springfield that will create energy from renewable cellulose, such as corn cobs, switch grass and kudzu.

“Let’s focus on the problems of Kentucky,” he said. “Let’s focus on making those problems opportunities.”

Good marketing is vital, he said, for a state as well as a company. Lyons thinks Alltech’s sponsorship of the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games will be good for marketing his company — and Kentucky. “It’s an incredible opportunity to show Kentucky to the world,” he said.

In some ways, Kentucky has a better image abroad than it does in the United States, thanks to such exports as Thoroughbred horses, bourbon whiskey, bluegrass music and what Lyons calls the “super brands” of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Muhammad Ali.

Good marketing sometimes just means taking advantage of small opportunities. Last Friday night, Lyons was back in Dublin for a black-tie dinner to receive the Foundation Day Medal from his alma mater, University College Dublin. But he didn’t go home alone.

That same evening, Alltech sponsored a recital at the Royal Irish Academy of Music by Everett McCorvey and Tedrin Blair Lindsay of UK Opera Theater, along with four UK students who have won the school’s Alltech-sponsored vocal competition.

After the recital, McCorvey said, he secretly arranged to hurry over to Lyons’ event so he could close the dinner by performing a special arrangement of My Old Kentucky Home with University College’s Choral Scholars.

After the performance, Lyons said, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

And it exposed 600 influential people in Ireland to a brand: Kentucky.

Lyons’ lectures

Northern Kentucky University, 7:30 a.m.
Student Union, Room 104, Highland Heights
Frazier International History Museum, 11:30 a.m.
829 West Main St., Louisville
(By invitation. Call (502) 625-0080)
KCTCS System Offices, 5:30 pm
300 North Main St., Versailles
Ashland Plaza Hotel, Ashland, 7:30 a.m.
Centre College, Old Carnegie Building, Danville, Noon
(By invitation. Call (859) 238-5218)
Eastern Kentucky University, 5 p.m.
Posey Auditorium, Stratton Building, Richmond