Lyons has more than money riding on 2010 games

NICHOLASVILLE — By the time the sun comes up in Jessamine County, Pearse Lyons has scanned the world.

The Dundalk, Ireland-born Alltech executive gets up at 4 a.m. and runs 3 or 4 miles. By 5 a.m., he's cleaning out his overnight e-mails from Southeast Asia and Great Britain.

When not traveling, he'll be in his office, with its panoramic view of the Alltech-owned Connemara Golf Course next door, by 8 a.m. Someday Lyons might turn that green acreage into a biotechnology research park: For now, the golfers come and go.

On Fridays he talks to everybody in the company via teleconference ("Leave your ego outside," Lyons says). Asia Pacific kicks off at 7:30 a.m., and he wraps up with Europe at 11:30 a.m. The company has 1,900 employees with offices in 85 countries and a trading presence in 113.

Lyons doesn't dawdle. He built Alltech from a tiny office of five people in 1980 to the high-technology, high-concept campus that now adorns Catnip Hill Pike in Nicholasville. He paid $10 million to add his company's name as a sponsor of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games — now less than a year away.

"If you're working at what you love, it's not really so hard, is it?" he asks.

How long can he keep doing this?

"Please God, till I die," he says, speaking with a slight Irish lilt that 30 years of immersion in flat Kentucky vowels has done little to alter.

Twenty years ago, Alltech was a speck on Lexington's corporate map. Not now. Pearse Lyons, 65, wants Alltech to be one of Kentucky's three great brands. (He identifies the two others as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Muhammad Ali.) He sees the Games as a means to that end.

"To become the superbrand, we have to make the Games the most incredible event this state has ever seen," Lyons says.

Lyons is a dynamite extemporaneous speaker. He is crisply dressed but a reluctant shopper, a tireless traveler, an evangelist on whatever subject he happens to be addressing — nutrition, the upcoming Games, Kentucky education, accountability: his company's pillars.

His most challenging year has just started — the leadup to the World Equestrian Games with which Alltech has linked its fortunes.

Alltech's many faces

If you want to get a frosty response at Alltech, slip up and suggest that the company makes animal food. It doesn't. Alltech makes animal feed ingredients — the things that make animals healthier and stronger. It is expert on all things yeast. It makes beer. Soon it may be making synthetic fuel at a plant near Springfield. Someday you may be able to buy an Alltech-produced selenium dietary supplement for human use.

With the opening of its $11 million, 20,000-square-foot Center for Animal Nutrigenomics and Applied Animal Nutrition next door to its headquarters, Alltech says it's not just feeding the animal anymore; it's feeding the gene.

In fact, Alltech wants to extend its reach across a variety of consumer needs — from high-performing horses and longer-lived pets to more robust sources of meat, alternative sources of fuel and dietary supplements for a hungry world.

The company will invest $3 million to $4 million in six pavilions that will be part of an International Village on the grounds at the Kentucky Horse Park during the Games to show that reach. They're striving for a mixture of technology that mimics Disney's Epcot — a technologically breathtaking yet personally intimate experience that makes a company seem like a family friend. The goal is to make Alltech, a very complicated business, seem like a small, small world.

'Life is not about money'

Even when sitting still, Lyons still emits a sort of Type-A hum, a low-pitched synthesis of ideas getting sifted, lists being made. On Labor Day, his wife and business partner Deirdre Lyons recalls, the couple was puttering around their $2 million-plus Nicholasville home. Or, rather, Deirdre was puttering, while Pearse was frustrated by the holiday: so much to do, so many people unavailable to do it.

One of six children, Pearse Lyons was the son of an electrician. His mother was a taskmaster for her children's education: "That's what she saw as the thing she didn't have," Pearse Lyons says.

When Lyons decided to start his own business, in his mid-30s, his mother's response was: "What took you so long?"

The first Alltech office was off Lexington's Nicholasville Road. The company moved to its Catnip Hill location in Jessamine County in 1984 and now employs 450 people at the site.

Alltech's campus has evolved into a stunning blend of science and art — a sort of technological version of North Carolina's Biltmore mansion.

It extends over 146 acres and includes the main office building, the Center for Animal Nutrigenomics and Applied Animal Nutrition, a warehouse and individual small facilities for research in fish and horses.

The landscaping is so neatly detailed that you could bounce a Dippin' Dot off the shrubbery. And yes, the company is inordinately proud of Dippin' Dots, those little round bits of ice cream invented by an Alltech employee in the '80s while working on animal feed. It even served them in August at its Alltech Kentucky Village in England at the Alltech FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championships alongside hot browns, Maker's Mark bourbon, and Alltech's Kentucky Ale and Bourbon Barrel Ale.

In addition to feed additives, the company also brews up beer and will soon introduce an after-dinner Irish coffee called Bluegrass Sundown. It's also going for a toehold in the ethanol business via the Springfield biorefinery.

But ask how the company does these things and the patter rapidly turns technical, including explanations on such topics as cellulosic ethanol (produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants), solid state fermentation (for production of microbial products such as feed, fuel, food, industrial chemicals and pharmaceutical products) and algae use in liquid fuel production.

It's complicated stuff, but in the hands of Lyons, who prides himself on making science simple, it seems both essential and elegant.

Joe Pagan, president of Kentucky Equine Research, said Lyons gave the animal feed business "a new flair that I don't think existed before."

With a diversity of opportunities and a booming company balance sheet, would this be a good time to take the private company public?

"But then what would I do?" asks Lyons. "Life is not about money."

The post-Games future

Where will Alltech products branch out next?

A Harvard Business School study noted that "by 2007, Alltech was one of the fastest growing feed ingredient suppliers in the world."

And it also raised the question of whether the feed company should go into the human vitamin supplement business. For the Alltech product Sel-Plex — "selenium in nature's form" — the data "is so strong," Lyons says.

Selenium may be one of the next great trends in nutrition: It's a trace mineral that also activates an antioxidant enzyme that may help protect the body from cancer. The company has produced samples of Sel-Plex, which is not for sale.

But the company has investigated the supplement's effects on HIV/AIDS patients in South Africa and Zambia.

Lyons doesn't fear scattering the company's efforts: "We have so many things to do."

Nor does he waffle on setting goals. His company wants to sell a billion dollars worth of product by 2015. Now the company is at $500 million, with a 35 percent profit margin.

Lyons has no doubts Alltech can hit that mark.

So why Kentucky? Why Nicholasville?

"Because this is where the bourbon business is," Lyons says. "We could have been and could be anywhere."

Fermentation technology is one of the company's core competencies. Lyons earned a master's degree in brewing technology and a doctorate in yeast fermentation at the British School of Malting and Brewing. He came to Lexington in 1977 as an executive of Biocon Inc., a British company that produces brewing additives. In 1980, he started his own company.

Still, Alltech remains in Kentucky, and enthusiastic about it.

Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, remembers Pearse Lyons giving him a call in 2005, inviting McCorvey to sing at the wedding reception of the Lyonses' daughter Aoife, and saying he had other ideas to discuss about supporting the university's opera program.

The next week, McCorvey turned up at Lyons' office to find that Lyons and his staff had already worked out the idea of a competition and developed a four-color flier.

"He said, 'Everett, what do you think about that?' I said, 'I think that would be fantastic.' He said, 'Well, you go figure out ... how to recruit some of the best singers in the country.'"

McCorvey did.

To lead like no one else

Earlier this year, Lyons told a group of dairy producers that "A monkey could be a manager in good times. ... We need leaders."

During a symposium in May, he recalled being in a near-crash in 1989 with his son Mark, then 11, on a flight from Rio to Toronto. The pilot announced the plane had lost its undercarriage and was going to crash. Panicked, Mark looked to his father for instructions. "It happens all the time," Lyons told the boy. "Read your book."

Lyons' theme: "Leadership brings security. That's what I was bringing to this 11-year-old boy. ... A leader brings certainty in a time of uncertainty.

A leader also takes up humanitarian causes, Lyons figures, because they're the right thing to do.

The link between Lyons and Muhammad Ali seems at first glance unlikely — the scientist and the pugilist, the entrepreneur and "The Greatest." "What right have I to aspire to have my name next to Muhammad Ali's?" asks Lyons.

But Lyons wants to help Ali achieve his legacy and Alltech achieve its ambition: "It's either right to do or it's wrong. You have to take these chances."

Earlier this year, Ali and his wife, Lonnie, joined Lyons to announce the Alltech-Muhammad Ali Center Global Education and Charitable Fund.

The fund plans to raise $500,000 by the end of 2010 for the educational and humanitarian goals of the Ali Center in Louisville and Alltech.

Earlier this month, Lyons accompanied Ali to County Clare, Ireland, where a local held up a banner calling the boxer "Ali O'Grady." Ali's great-grandfather, Abe Grady, emigrated to the United States in the 1860s.

Being the boss

Lyons says he has never laid off anybody. He has fired people, he says, but not laid them off.

"One of the secrets to a company's success is employee longevity," he says. "It takes two years to understand Alltech."

Details matter. Lyons holds up a model of his Bombardier Challenger 604 plane with the tag N310TK. What does it mean? Look hard: It says BIOTECH.

Four pilots are on staff, with one mechanic: Lyons and company travel a lot. Deirdre Lyons talks about times when Pearse Lyons' plane will land long enough to switch crew members and take off again. He won't even leave the airport.

Still, he says forcefully, "There's never been a set of golf clubs on that plane. It's a working plane. Alltech is a working company."

If Alltech seems remote from the everyday Kentuckian, think of it this way:

"If you've had a turkey sandwich at Subway, you've had one of our products," says Dan Haney, director of international manufacturing.

An Alltech product called Bio-Mos goes into the turkeys.

About 75 percent of the company's sales are overseas.

On the Nicholasville site is a plant where bacteria are processed. In São Pedro, Brazil, the company operates the largest yeast factory in the world.

The Nutrigenomics building opened in Nicholasville in the spring of 2008. It is here, for example, that the companies can target research as specific as how to nourish a horse's bone strength.

"Yes, we will be doing innovative things," Pearse Lyons says. "What are those innovative things?"

The company does not yet know, he says.

All he knows is that, like the World Equestrian Games, they're coming.

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