Tom Eblen

What made Pearse Lyons ‘larger than life.’ And why Kentucky needs more like him.

Remembering Alltech's Pearse Lyons

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. A remembrance of his li
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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. A remembrance of his li

Since Pearse Lyons died Thursday at age 73, people have described him as being “larger than life.”

I talked with Lyons dozens of times over the past decade, and I’ve been thinking about what made him such an unforgettable character.

First of all, he was a visionary. With a Ph.D. in the science of distilling and $10,000 in capital, he and his wife, Deirdre, started Alltech in their Lexington garage. He believed that yeast and enzymes could improve the nutritional value of animal feed.

As Alltech grew, Lyons saw his company’s mission as more than making money; he wanted to find innovative ways to feed a hungry planet. And, later, enrich life with a drink or two.

Alltech was “all natural” before that was trendy. So when sustainable agriculture and organic food and supplements became big business, Lyons was ready to take advantage of opportunities.

Lyons had more energy than a 5-year-old. I would get early-morning calls from him, and very early-morning emails. I would see him at events, always fresh and dressed to perfection, only hours after he had flown home on his private jet from Europe, China or Brazil.

Through growth and acquisitions, Alltech is now a $3 billion private company with more than 5,000 employees and operations in 128 countries.

Lyons knew how to sell his vision. He got truly excited talking about the potential of yeast, enzymes and aquaculture. I’ve never met another man who could wax poetic about algae.

More than a marketer, Lyons was a world-class communicator. Many successful people think they are good motivational speakers, but Lyons really was. His talks were a mix of big ideas, heartfelt wisdom and self-deprecating humor.

He was just as good one-on-one. Whether chatting with Queen Elizabeth II or a Haitian child whose school chorus he had brought to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Lyons had a magic touch. He made any person he was talking to feel they had his full attention.

Lyons loved to have fun. For a man of huge intellect, focus and drive, he also had a playful spirit. A proud Irishman, he loved to drink and sing. As Lyons built breweries and distilleries — and lavished support on the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program — he got plenty of opportunities to do both.

Key to Lyons’ success was his wife, Deirdre, who helped create Alltech’s innovative spirit and global image. Their strengths and temperaments complemented each other well. “One of the keys to success in Alltech … is to intrigue, to enamor, to pull in my wife, Deirdre,” Lyons told a gathering in 2015.

By all appearances, the Lyons have done a good job of grooming their two children for success. Both have earned doctorates. Mark, Alltech’s executive vice president, now becomes chairman and president. Aoife, a clinical psychologist, heads the company’s education and career-development efforts.

The Lyons have become significant philanthropists in Kentucky, Ireland and elsewhere, donating science labs to schools, supporting young scientists and sponsoring cash prizes for entrepreneurs and opera students. Education is their passion, Lyons once told me, because “from education comes innovation.”

After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Lyons didn’t just want to give emergency relief. Alltech started a fair-trade coffee company there to create jobs, and it donates any profits to Haitian schools.

With his equestrian games under way in Lexington, Lyons enlisted Irish airline executive Shane Ryan, who owns Castleton Lyons Farm, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan and the legendary Irish band The Chieftains to put on a benefit concert for Haiti. “When you get an invitation like this, you can’t refuse,” Chieftains leader Paddy Maloney told me afterward.

“I’ve never met anyone as driven, as wired or as big-hearted as Dr. Lyons,” UK basketball Coach John Calipari wrote on his blog this week. Calipari wrote that Lyons, an avid runner, would sometimes jog downtown “giving out hundred dollar bills to anybody he thought needed it.”

“Most of us will not know all the things he’s done until they start coming out now,” Calipari told sportswriters Thursday night.

There is often no patriot like an immigrant, no zealot like a convert. That was true of Lyons, who left Ireland for Kentucky in 1976 and never passed up a chance to promote his adopted state, especially after he started selling Kentucky Ale.

“Kentucky may be the only state that has 128 embassies around the world,” he liked to say, referring to Alltech offices.

UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey said he and his students performed at Alltech events all over the world, and each one began or ended with the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Lyons often said he believed Kentucky has the potential to be a global leader in agriculture and innovation. But he said Kentuckians, like the Irish, often don’t have enough confidence in themselves to embrace new ideas and dream big.

“Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies,” he said. “I believe there is an opportunity for Kentucky, driven by education, driven by technology, to bring solutions to the world.”

Kentucky needs more big dreamers like Pearse Lyons. But he was one of a kind.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen