Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons talked with Tom Martin about the unique annual conference his company will host at the Lexington Center for its 32nd year. “ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference” opens on May 22.
Q: In the past, we’ve known this event as “Symposium,” and then “Rebelation.” The primary focus was agricultural issues and innovation. But you’ve been expanding the program and changed the title to “ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference.” What’s different about it?
A: People have always come to our event wanting to share ideas. So, this year we said we’ll call it the “ONE”: the one place to go with your idea; the one place to share your idea; the one place to find your idea; the one place just to rub shoulders with people, and make things happen. That’s the One.
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Q: This is truly an international gathering. Where are people coming from?
A: They’re coming from the well-known countries like France, Germany, China and Ireland, my home country. But also Serbia, Ukraine, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka — all coming to Lexington, Kentucky and all coming to (as much as anything) share camaraderie. I’m a great believer in “you make a friend, you make a sale. You make a friend, you build a business.”
Q: Do you encourage Lexington residents to attend as well?
A: I would say if you’re truly interested in knowing what’s going on in the rest of the world, you should come. I don’t know where on two to three days you can go meet so many interesting people from so many different countries. And if you’re interested as a local business in making contacts, I can’t begin to think how much money it would cost you to actually hit 71 countries.
Q: What do you want attendees to take away with them?
A: I’m a great believer that it’s all about stories and how you connect. And so, leaving this conference, I want them to think it’s all about entrepreneurial-ship. It’s all about creating jobs.
Q: You have many notable speakers on your agenda including the keynoter, Apple computer developer Steve Wozniak. What will he talk about?
A: He’ll talk about the common touch. He’ll talk about the fact that he is an ordinary guy. I’ve spoken to him a few times now on the phone. He doesn’t come out with 50, 60, 70 slides. Just, ‘here I am. This is my story. This is how I got started.’ This is not about rocket science. This is about doing something that you’re passionate about. Very common. Very ordinary. Very inspiring.
Q: Is there something about the Apple culture and brand that appeals to you?
A: There is. What attracts me to their culture, one: they did things first class; two: it was American technology at its best; and three: there was speed. ‘It will be done and done fast.’ And I preach that to our people every single day.
Q: Other speakers include UK Coach John Calipari, talking about his “Players First” concept and how he gets his players to believe and trust in each other and to play as a team. You have Jim Stengel, the former global marketing officer of Proctor & Gamble, talking about how to lead a company that’s going strong after 100 years while still trying to maintain the appeal of a startup, and Alan Mulally, the former Ford Motor CEO.
A: You’ve mentioned some really superb American entrepreneurs. There is one thing which runs through all of these people and that’s team. They pull a team together. Being a servant to your team and certainly Coach Calipari, that’s what he preaches. Mulally is the same. He once talked about his vision and that there will be one Ford, one team, one destiny, one objective. And he’s just part of it. And so, this business of team and you’re together, everybody achieves more, if you’ve got that, you will be successful. And that’s why we’re encouraging high school children to come. We’re encouraging the university people, MBA students, to come and see how ordinary these people are, how motivating they are and how, ‘gosh, I could do that!’
Q: Now, of course, you’re speaking, as well. Can you give us a preview?
A: Yes, I’m speaking. There’s always a catch. The entrepreneur gets over the catch. You never allow the catch to stop you. And that’s the theme that runs through this whole conference: entrepreneurial-ship; finding a way. I’ve experienced working in so many countries around the world. And if there’s one country where we can overcome the catch, it’s America. If there’s one country where the infrastructure is there and the encouragement is there to overcome the catch, it’s America and that’s what this meeting is all about.
Q: Are concerns about climate change and the impact on agriculture expressed in any way in the conference?
A: They are, of course. We will make some recommendations as to how people can reduce their carbon footprint. We can do that. The problem is getting people to realize that global warming, carbon dioxide, yes, it’s a problem. There’s also a huge opportunity. There are ways, in fact, to do things about it. We have a yeast factory in Serbia, for example, and we have waste. But that waste then goes to a methane digester and we produce so much energy that we have more than we need that we can sell back into the grid. For heaven’s sake, don’t be like the ostrich putting its head in the sand. Recognize there is a problem. Problems mean opportunities. I often say opportunity of a lifetime, but only in the lifetime of the opportunity. And any great idea, I don’t care what the idea is, has probably got a lifespan of two to three days unless you do something. So yes, we will be addressing those problems.
Q: Another big category at the conference I know is very near and dear to your heart as a person who holds degrees in brewing. That, of course, is craft brewing and distilling. Your company has been expanding in that area recently. Can you tell us what you’re doing in that field?
A: Beer consumption and production have been flat for about 10 years. Craft beer, on the other hand, grows at 20 percent per annum. Think about it. Downtown Lexington, we placed an order for three breweries. Not one, not two, but three. And it was the first time ever that the Crohn’s brewing equipment company, the biggest in the world, received an order of three breweries from one state, basically one town. So, we have one at Cross Street. We have an even bigger one which is going to go into Angliana Avenue. And of course, the third one is going to Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky. To be able to do something in Eastern Kentucky, something significant like that, to be agents of change is extraordinary. And I was challenged by Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University. He said, ‘Pearse, why don’t we do one at Western?” I said, “Yeah. Why not? Come see me.” So, he arrived one morning. By the end of that morning, we had made the decision: there would be a brewery at Western Kentucky University. There would be a bachelor’s degree first and then a master’s degree in brewing and distilling at Western Kentucky. So, is it brewing or is it education? Is it education or is it business? Our first business logo was marketing through education. So, Alltech is immersed in education. It’s not about the money. Never about money.
Q: How are you connecting attendees to the local area? And why is that important to you?
A: It’s important because I’ve chosen Lexington. We want to show Lexington. We want to show Alltech. But we also want to make the statement that it’s a wonderful place to live. It’s a wonderful place to raise your children. And it’s a wonderful place to raise your business. And if we can show them that through the connections with the restaurants, the supermarkets, if we can show that through the malls — when they go to the malls, these guys spend money. Sometimes, I think as Americans we don’t realize what great value we get. It’s not unusual for us to see a couple of guys going out. The taxi has to wait at Fayette Mall as they go in and load up. Not unusual. So, it’s important for Lexington, but more important — being a little bit selfish — it’s important for us because if they go away feeling what a place, what a company, what an opportunity, Lexington wins, and we win, and our guests win.
Q: With such an international crowd coming their way, what advice can you offer local businesses?
A: Number one, realize English is not their first language. So, speak slowly. Have cards demonstrating 20% off or whatever it is. Have a story about your location. Translate it into Spanish. Translate it into Portuguese. And once you do that, they’ll come back and spend more in your place. Explain the food and what it is that you do in that particular store. And sell one thing. It’s the only thing we have to sell. That’s Kentucky. You don’t sell Illinois. You also don’t sell America. You sell Kentucky. There’s 4+ million of us. We’re different. We’re small. We’re not overpowering. You know, it’s not Chicago. It’s not New York. It’s not Las Vegas. It’s Kentucky. And therein lies something that people feel very comfortable with. And you’ll be amazed at the impact that you’ll have on these people. They’re no different to you and I. When you go to a party — and this is a party — you don’t want to stand in the corner with nobody to talk to. You want somebody to welcome you. You want somebody to talk to you. Don’t try to be what you’re not. We are Kentuckians. This is Big Blue country. Tell the story.
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.