Nearly 3,500 people from 76 nations will be in town Sunday through Tuesday for One18: The Alltech Ideas Conference at Lexington Center. But for the first time in the 34 years Alltech has staged this annual symposium, one person will be missing: Pearse Lyons, the company’s founder, who died March 8 at age 73.
All eyes will be on his son, Mark Lyons, who at age 41 is now president of Nicholasville-based Alltech, an animal nutrition and beverage company that does business in 130 countries.
In the two months since his father’s death, Lyons has made trips to Ireland, Britain, Spain, China, India, Singapore and Vietnam to meet with employees and customers about the transition. He has many more such trips on his calendar.
But the One Conference will be Lyons’ public debut as the boss. He knows everyone will be watching him, sizing him up and comparing him to his father — a dynamic Irish entrepreneur, innovator and thinker who had a big personality.
People will be looking for signs of what kind of leader Mark Lyons will be, and where he plans to take family-owned Alltech and its 5,000 employees as he tries to grow the company from revenues of more than $2 billion to his father’s stated goal of $10 billion.
Kentuckians will wonder what kind of community player Lyons will be. Although he grew up here, Lyons is not well-known as a leader, mainly because he has spent the past six years living in Beijing heading Alltech’s China operations.
Holly, his wife of nearly three years, is even less well-known locally. She is from upstate New York and has lived in Africa and Ireland, where she earned her master’s degree. But she knows Central Kentucky from having been an undergraduate at Asbury University in Wilmore. “Her passion is non-profit work,” said Lyons, adding that they both want to become involved in the community.
Alltech practices philanthropy and employee volunteerism in each place it does business, Lyons said, because “it’s not just the impact you can have, but who you become in the process.”
His mother, Deirdre Lyons, Alltech’s co-founder and director of corporate image and design, has always been a driving force behind those philanthropic endeavors. That will not change, she said.
Alltech plans to remain firmly rooted in Kentucky, but the company will change a lot, as it always has, to respond to new challenges and opportunities, Lyons said. This generational shift is just one more challenge.
“It’s not the way we planned it, obviously,” he said in an interview. “But Dad loved to say, ‘Don’t lose the opportunity of a good crisis’.”
Mark Lyons was born in Shrewsbury, England, where his father was then working. His sister, Aoife, is four years older. She lives in Dublin, has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is Alltech’s director of educational initiatives and engagement.
Soon after he was born, the family moved to Kentucky, arriving in Lexington on an April day in 1977 that was so hot his mother wasn’t sure she wanted to live here. Three years later, the couple started Alltech in their garage with $10,000 in capital.
Beginning at age 8, Lyons accompanied his father on business trips when he could. “My father was traveling all the time, and the best way to see him was to go with him,” he said. “So I got to visit a lot of countries, carrying his briefcase.”
He attended The Lexington School and Henry Clay High School, where he ran track and cross-country. The family spent summers in Ireland, where he also went to school with cousins. The Lyons became American citizens in the 1990s. “We were always one foot in each culture,” he said.
As a teenager, Lyons spent summers in Germany with friends, attending school there as well. At the University of Chicago, he majored in political science and environmental science. “There wasn’t a lot of overlap,” he said.
Lyons said he developed a love of history from his middle school history teacher, Margaret Cowling, and an interest in political systems from his travels. But his father insisted both children study “hard” science. (His sister did psychology and biology at Notre Dame.)
Although his father had always dreamed of his working at Alltech, Lyons said he was tempted to follow college friends into New York investment banking, where young people quickly earned big money — until the dot-com bubble burst.
It was then 1999, and his father was urging him to go to graduate school. “He said, ‘Why don't you go and study brewing like I did’,” Lyons recalled.
To see if he might like it, Lyons and his father visited Lexington Brewing Co. “They basically said I could do an internship for a week (but then) they were going to close,” he said. “So Dad bought the brewery. That's how we started Kentucky Ale."
Lyons earned a master’s in brewing and distilling and a Ph.D. in solid state fermentation at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. He began his Alltech career at a joint-venture fermentation plant in Mexico. He was sent there to learn, but nothing was working, he said. After six months, during which he learned Spanish, Lyons was put in charge of the 200-employee plant and told to fix its problems. He was 23.
“It was a great experience being that young, having that kind of responsibility,” he said. “I really felt that if I failed there I would never be able to work in Alltech."
He fixed the problems, and after four years in Mexico he headed fermentation plants in Serbia and Brazil. He led North American operations from 2009 to 2011 as the company sponsored the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Lyons went to China in 2012. He is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and Mandarin. “I kind of feel at home everywhere,” he said.
“When you have that global mindset you learn that everything is local,” he said. “At the end of the day, we're not very different. Everybody wants the same things."
While living in China, Lyons said he and his father talked by phone every morning and night. When his father went in for heart surgery Nov. 1, Lyons returned to Lexington and, for the most part, stayed with him until he died. “I feel very fortunate to have had the time we had to talk about things that are important,” he said.
A different style
Lyons wears his hair long and curly, but he is not the big personality his father was. “I do have quite a bit of my mother in me,” he said. “Dad called it a quiet confidence.”
Lyons says his leadership style is more collaborative than his father’s. Founders are often strong individualists, but growing a company requires more teamwork.
Alltech has grown rapidly in recent years through acquisitions, mostly in North America. Success in turning around some of those businesses has prompted several companies to approach Alltech to be the operating partner in joint ventures.
“This collaborative model could be interesting, especially when you're looking at markets that might be more protected,” he said, mentioning China and Indonesia. “It will be a big way that we grow.”
“We're really in a moment of change, quite significant change within the industry,” he said. Large segments of agriculture are moving away from low-cost mass production toward more sustainable, all-natural models that have always been Alltech’s focus because that’s what consumers want.
He said Alltech’s life science businesses also could be a growth opportunity, bringing technology to market to directly improve human health.
As Alltech grows, one challenge will be to remain nimble and innovative. That’s one reason Lyons is pushing the idea of making Kentucky a national hub for agriculture technology — a place where people with innovative ideas can come and grow their companies, perhaps in collaboration with Alltech.
“You're going to see a lot of changes within Alltech, a lot of positive things,” he said. “You can't replace a Pearse Lyons; no one person could. But essentially you're going to see tens, maybe hundreds, perhaps thousands of Alltechians as we like to call them thinking like Pearse Lyons. That's what we're trying to inspire. This is the way he thought, this was the impact it had, and these are the things we can learn from it.”