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 iHigh.com, 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.


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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

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.”

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