Dr. Pearse Lyons-A Reflection in the Mirror

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I was looking forward to my interview with Dr. Pearse Lyons, the founder and president of Alltech, the title sponsor of the 2010 World Equestrian Games.

I’d only met him once at a media function. Dr. Lyons invited media to a tour of his headquarters in Nicholasville, KY. That short glimpse was like that reflection in the mirror – that intangible person you know very little about but hope to glean some more insight from over time.
To say I was in awe was an understatement. I’ve met amazing people at all levels, including Kings and Queens, celebrities, and CEOs. I’ve flown in private planes and done lots more than people will never know about, but I was truly surprised when I saw the Alltech buildings. Every part of them is carefully thought out, very functional and a work of art.

While that impressed me, I still wanted to know more about the mirror image. Who was that man who in 1980 invested $10,000 into a business he believed in which now has grown to be a $400 million enterprise. And who in 2007 decided that investing $10,000,000 to become the title sponsor of WEG 2010 was a wise decision.

That man is Dr. Pearse Lyons, a dedicated, devoted, leader who will walk out in the perfect attire on the one hand yet get his hands dirty when the need arises. He knows the proper protocol when dining in a fine restaurant but loves sharing a beer and conversation with the local folk. He is a caring husband to Deidre and a father to Mark (32) and Aoife (35). Yet it is his conversations about his company that put him on fire.

Growing Up Irish
While horses didn’t consume his entire life they did play a part in his upbringing and that of his kids.  “Growing up in Ireland you cannot help but have contact with horses,” explained Dr. Lyons. “They are part of the culture. I never owned a horse as a child but I owned two horses when my kids were growing up.”

His Irish horsey memories also center on Easter Monday. “All of Ireland would go to the Irish Grand National steeplechase either in person or watch it on television.”

Yet growing up wasn’t just about the horses. He’d grown up when Ireland was in a semi depression and while his dad focused on supporting the family his mother opened a food and candy shop. Pearse learned the basics of business. “We took 100 pound bags of sugar and put it in one pound bags and we sold it for more than we bought it for. When people came in to buy we gave them credit and then we would watch who paid and who didn’t. That’s all part of your education.”

Daily life in a small town of 20,000 was also crucial to his future. “What was unique about our small town was that it was on the border of two countries. One country was Northern Ireland, part of Britain with the flag of Britain flying and the other country was Southern Ireland where the Irish flew the flag. There was nationalism on the Southern side, and this devotion and dedication to Britain on the other. You were caught between two cultures, two religions, and two economic systems.

“Your survival skills had to be way more than most kids. I would go across the border two or three times a week to shop for mom because it was cheaper. Northern Ireland had armed guards and on the other side unarmed guards. The odds are that we are the summation of all our experiences and growing up in a small town on a border is a unique perspective. Entrepreneurialship was born and it is interesting that from that town a lot of Irish entrepreneurs have emerged. I believe it made the brain creative.”

Years later he would graduate with a degree in biochemistry from the National University of Ireland, followed by Master’s and Doctoral degrees at the University of Birmingham, England. He then worked as a biochemist at Irish Distillers followed by working for BioCon, an enzyme company. Dr. Lyons moved to Kentucky in 1976. It wasn’t until 1980 that the entrepreneur in Dr. Lyons would emerge when he started Alltech.

All About Alltech

While my goal when interviewing Dr. Lyons was to get to know the man, Alltech is who he is. “I live Alltech,” he admits. The company was started in his garage on Cornwall Drive in Lexington, KY as a supplier to the alcohol industry.

Nowadays, Alltech is a global animal health company that employs more than 1,900 people and has a presence in 113 countries with offices in 85 countries including Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia-Pacific. They are a worldwide leader in the animal health industry, boasting group sales of more than $400 million.

The company supplies natural, nutritional solutions to the animal feed industry. Their headquarters are in Kentucky but they also have a European Bioscience Centre in Ireland, another in Bangkok and 14 production facilities throughout the world. The newest and most innovative part of Alltech is their Centre for Animal Nutrigenomics. The centre focuses on how nutrition affects the gene.

Lifeforce Formula, a once-a-day natural nutritional supplement designed for all horses at every stage of life, was launched at the 2009 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Lifeforce ensures that the horse – a grazer – maintains healthy fermentation while consuming either hay or complete feed.

Making The Decision To Sponsor WEG 2010

With all that success I wondered what it was about the World Equestrian Games that guided Dr. Lyons to become the main sponsor. It started with a visit and a suggestion that these Games be called the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2010. Dr. Lyons wanted to know why. He learned that the Games were coming for the first time to North America after having been held exclusively in Europe.

“I listened patiently and perhaps a little indifferently. We get literally hundreds of requests every year. Yet, what struck me about the Games was that in addition to its first time appearance, it was in a part of our business that we are actually involved. Not like supporting a soccer team or a baseball team. Also, nobody else seemed to be that interested or saw the opportunity.”

As he got to understand the global reach of the Games it struck a chord. “After I decided that this was something that we could afford and that we can actually use, I told the people that I was interested but made no commitment whatsoever.”

A few days later during a speech, “I said that we had decided that we would become the title sponsor and do so to the tune of 10 million dollars. No one knew that I was going to make this announcement, not my wife nor anybody else, not even the people who had approached me and to this day it continues to be perhaps the single best decision we have ever made because it has catapulted us to a new level.”

A recent case study done about Alltech by Harvard wondered why such an amazing company “isn’t four times the size?” commented Dr. Lyons. “The reason is that our day is coming. I believe that decisions like the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will do just that.”

The good news for the horse world is that Alltech will focus more attention on helping horses. “We will launch a range of standalone products for the equine side,” revealed Dr. Lyons.

He went on to talk about how some of the past tragedies in the racing world might be helped by testing that Alltech is presently undertaking. Dr. Lyons believes that nutrigenomics will one day answer questions such as “are we pushing the horses too fast? Are we feeding our horses right?”

Using himself as an example Dr. Lyons commented, “I’ve run all my life and never had a problem. I think nutrition is crucial and I don’t think we are doing enough for horses. We have an unbelievable amount of information that if you approach nutrition a certain way, bone strength increases.”

Dr. Lyons also talked about other topics where nutrition will help. “There is an incredible opportunity in fertility. The covering of a mare is still very expensive. In the dairy business if we can reduce the covering of a dairy cow that means the dairy cow will go back into production faster. We already have products which address that. Why would we not have a fertility pack that would be precisely used for horses? And why not have a bone pack and a strength pack. I am not saying that we have the solution to everything but we are a solution driven company.”

The Mirror Image

Getting Dr. Lyons to leave the business world behind is no easy task but I finally did get a chance to know and understand the man who was born on August 3, 1944.

He is “an adventurer, a tinker, a gypsy and I like to have fun. I have gone places that I could never go with my wife. I went to Northern Ireland when they were fighting and Serbia when the war was starting. I am a fatalist – what is going to happen is going to happen. One year we had a crash landing where the wheels fell off the bottom of our plane. My son Mark asked me what I thought. I said don’t worry just read your book. I am a fatalist and yet I am an optimist because I feel that we will be okay in the end.”

A typical day is getting up at 4:45 a.m. which is when he calls his secretary who arrives at 5:00. He doesn’t have a computer but he does have a blackberry. He goes through every email and fax and instructs her on how to respond. “I call it the one pass. I look at it. If I can do it I will do it on the spot but if not I’ll put it aside. At 6:00 I go running. I come back, I shower and breakfast and then I’ll work.” His work day continues at home or at the office.

Theoretically his work day never ends but “having said that I come home around 8:00 and switch off and I don’t want to talk about business. After work I don’t want responsibility. I want to cool out, chill out.”

He then spends quality time with his wife, who he admits is “a very private person. We are like chalk and cheese. We are a very unusual team but it works. That doesn’t mean I ask her advice or vice versa. She’s extremely talented and does all the interior decorating in our buildings.”

Dr. Lyons switches off by reading or going to a ball game. In the mornings his running helps. “Like riding a horse, you are out there with nature.”

Dr. Lyons is most passionate about fun and creativity, getting an idea and making it happen and then passing that passion on to people who can then join him in the chase.”

What bothers him are “negative people, who keep saying no or oh yeah but. I don’t have any patience with that.”

As for what drives him. “Certainly not money; probably that there are so many things to do and so little time to do it and so much fun to be had. What drives me is the sheer enthusiasm that I see now in some of my staff and I can’t let them down. Not so long ago I was a young enthusiast and I want to capture that in them.”

The lowest point in his life was “when my mum died, then my father and my brother. They weren’t low low. The Irish love the drama and the melancholy aspect but I don’t get sad in my beer.”

As to one special moment, Dr. Lyons chooses “finishing my phD, my first order, things like that. I still get as much excitement as when we started in business.” He also appreciates longevity. His mom always said to not fly too high. “If you don’t fly too high, you won’t have far to fall.”

He enjoys the color blue and a good steak and chips. He despises the word no. If someone wanted to walk in his shoes he wants them to fit and they should “leave their ego outside. It’s important not to lose the common touch. How many people have you met who forget where they came from?”

Dr. Lyons tells the anecdote of one of the men in his office who always responds to his “hello, or good morning,” with “better than a pay raise, because you are recognizing him.”

There is so much more about Dr. Lyons and his achievements are too numerous to mention. Some of those include having authored 20 books and being recognized as one of the top 15 Irish-American life scientists of the year by Biolink USA-Ireland. In 1993 Kentucky honored him with the Entrepreneur of the Year award. He’s also been philanthropic and Alltech has supported building boats and shops for tsunami victims and much more. Most recently he’s started a project called the Kentucky Experience with a goal to improve Kentucky.

Making things better, that’s what it’s all about for Dr. Pearse Lyons. Whether it’s in his business or for his state, for his private life, for his staff or clients, Dr. Pearse Lyons is one guy who when he looks in the mirror sees a guy who is still filling those 100 pound bags of sugar into one pound bags. Yet for him the sugar is being replaced by nutrition and the goal is to help every animal he can one bag at a time.

After finishing our conversation Dr. Lyons and I took a walk around so that I could capture some images. For a moment he stopped and looked out the glass windows just outside his office. I saw his reflection and captured it through my lens. I suddenly realized while I may not know everything about Dr. Lyons, I had achieved my goal of understanding that reflection in the mirror!