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.
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.
Never miss a local story.
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 musical 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."
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."