Tom Eblen: Alltech Symposium all about embracing, solving big problems

Herald-Leader columnistMay 20, 2014 

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."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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