Pearse Lyons, the Irish-born Kentucky billionaire who founded the international agribusiness and beverage giant Alltech and was the key figure in bringing the World Equestrian Games to Lexington in 2010, has died at age 73.
Lyons died Thursday morning after months of hospitalization from an acute lung condition developed during recovery from heart surgery Nov. 1, Alltech spokeswoman Susanna Elliott said.
A hard-charging businessman and scientist with boundless energy and an outgoing personality, Lyons also was a major philanthropist, focusing on education. Among many other contributions, he and his family have given science labs to schools, scholarships to science graduate students and more than $1 million to help the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program attract and educate top students.
“Pearse was a builder,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “A builder of ideas and projects and people. A man of imagination, vigor, and enthusiasm. He was one of those rare, larger than life figures who had an influence far beyond our borders.”
Funeral masses will be in Lexington on March 17 and in Dublin, Ireland, in April. A celebration of life will be held May 20 at the beginning of ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference in Lexington. Public visitation in Lexington will be March 16. Details will be available later at: Alltech.com/pearselyons.
The company announced that Lyons’ son, Mark, the company’s executive vice president, would become chairman and president. Alric A. Blake, who was appointed chief executive officer in 2016, will continue in that role and be the treasurer. E. Michael Castle I was appointed vice president and secretary.
Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, started Alltech in the garage of their Lexington home in 1980 with $10,000. It is now a family-owned company with 5,000 employees in 80 offices around the world doing business in about 130 countries. The company has said annual revenues are about $3 billion after several acquisitions. Like most privately held companies, Alltech doesn’t disclose profits.
Alltech focuses on all-natural nutrition products for animals and humans based on yeast fermentation, enzyme technology, algae and the interaction of nutrition and genetics. It has brewing and distilling operations in Lexington, Bowling Green, Pikeville and Dublin, Ireland.
Thomas Pearse Lyons was born Aug. 3, 1944, in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, one of six children of Thomas Kevin Lyons and the former Margaret Dunne. His mother owned a small grocery, which Lyons said inspired him to become an entrepreneur.
His mother’s family included five generations of coopers, who made barrels for Irish whiskey distillers. After he started his beer and distilling operations, Lyons often joked that his parents were teetotalers, so he tried to drink enough to make up for it.
Lyons’ first job was helping in the laboratory at the Harp Lager brewery in Dundalk at age 14. After earning a bachelor’s degree from University College Dublin, Lyons studied at the British School of Malting and Brewing in Birmingham and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in brewing science from the University of Birmingham.
After interning at Guinness and Harp Lager, he worked as a biochemist for Irish Distillers, which makes Jameson whiskey, and helped design its Midleton Distillery.
At age 17, Lyons met Deirdre Byrne, and they were married in 1972. Daughter Aoife was born in 1973; son Mark in 1977. All three are now senior Alltech executives.
The Lyons family moved to Lexington in 1976 after Gems Whisky, an Irish distiller, asked Pearse Lyons to help Kentucky ethanol distillers improve their processes. Four years later, the couple started Alltech to use yeast technologies to improve the nutritional value of animal feed.
The company’s name came from their daughter’s initials: Aoife Louise Lyons. Alltech’s headquarters complex is on Catnip Hill Road in Jessamine County.
Lyons bought the former Lexington Brewing Co. in 1999 and started making Kentucky Ale, adding Bourbon Barrel Ale in 2006 and other drinks since then. The company built Town Branch Distillery by its brewery on the west side of downtown Lexington in 2008. Its main products are Town Branch Bourbon, Town Branch Rye and Pearse Lyons Reserve, a malt whiskey.
As Lyons’ public profile grew, he became an enthusiastic promoter of Kentucky, which led to his company’s title sponsorship of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in the fall of 2010.
“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 in a 2012 talk about entrepreneurship. “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.”
Alltech’s annual global conference brings nearly 4,000 people from 70 countries to the Lexington Center each May for seminars and discussions about new sustainable agribusiness technology and techniques.
Lyons loved getting to know celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, who appeared at the equestrian games’ opening ceremony. He took a road show of “Kentucky Proud” products to England’s Royal Windsor Horse Show in 2009 and sat by Queen Elizabeth II in her private box.
Last year, the couple returned home to open Pearse Lyons Distillery at St. James, an Irish whiskey distillery in Dublin’s long-abandoned St. James Church, which they renovated and enlarged. Lyons was especially proud of the project, which his wife directed, because the adjacent churchyard held the graves of his great-grandfather and other relatives.
Lyons received several honorary university degrees and many awards, including the Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Ireland-U.S. Council and the St. Patrick’s Day Science Medal from Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
In Kentucky, he was given the state’s first Legacy Award in 2011 for his role in bringing the World Equestrian Games to Lexington and the Henry Clay Medallion for Distinguished Service.
The Lyons family’s philanthropy has included donating more than a dozen science labs to parochial schools in Kentucky and Ireland. The company has helped about 440 science graduate students with scholarships, internships and work experience. The Alltech Innovation Competition gives $10,000 awards to entrepreneurs.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Alltech opened a coffee plant there to provide jobs in one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries. Profits from Alltech’s Café Citadelle coffees go to two primary schools in northern Haiti.
The company has been a major supporter of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program, sponsoring the annual Alltech Vocal Scholarship Competition. It has attracted some of the world’s best young singers to UK with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and scholarships.
“I loved Pearse like a brother,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre. “I am just so thankful that he and Deirdre made Kentucky their home and allowed so many people to shine by offering us their light.”
Pearse Lyons in his words
- In a May 2017 op-ed, Lyons wrote Lexington: a Silicon Valley for food and agricultural innovation?
- In this 2016 audio clip, Lyons talks about this ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference. He was interviewed by Tom Martin
- In this 2016 Herald-Leader op-ed, Lyons wrote about the passing of Muhammad Ali. “We lost an icon. We lost a great man.”
- Lyons spoke about his Irish roots and building an Irish business when he won the Ireland U.S. Council 2012 Award for Outstanding Achievement
- In February 2017, he talked at the 2017 Cattle Industry Convention about Alltech’s coming Ideas Conference