This Irish entrepreneur brings more than business sense to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
He calls himself a storyteller, a fatalist, a brewer, a father, a husband and a businessman, but even these titles don’t fully define Pearse Lyons. While his family—wife Deirdre, son Mark and daughter Aoife—is most important to him, making a difference in the world is a close second to the owner and founder of the World Equestrian Games’ title sponsor, Alltech.
“The most important thing is seeing the dramatic impact that, in many cases, a small amount of money or input and a large amount of effort can have on other people’s lives,” said Lyons. “I see opportunities everywhere. That’s what it’s about.”
He’s been referred to as an innovator, a serial entrepreneur and a problem solver, but he claims he doesn’t necessarily have a personal philosophy, except for whatever goes around, comes around.
“We’re here to do a job. We’re here to make a difference,” he said with a smile. “That’s what I do. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I work with great people. We have great fun; we have great products, but yet in the afternoon, as a colleague of mine would say, we get paid for this!”
Lyons’ son, Mark Lyons, sees how his father motivates people. “You have to feel your way around how you’re going to work with him and what you’re going to do,” said Mark, Alltech’s Director of North America. “It’s just the way he is. It’s not a show; it’s not an act. He’s always going to have ideas that are a little off the wall. He just sees things differently.”
There’s no doubt that beneath the Irish charm and excitement for his projects, Pearse is as business savvy as they come.
“He has this Irish twinkle in his eye as he’s speaking,” said Madelyn Millard, president of the Kentucky Horse Council. “He’s engaging, and he’s exciting to listen to because he’s excited about what’s happening. He has my utmost admiration. He has a vision and a determination and will to see that vision through until completion.”
Millard sees a personal strength in Pearse that she believes has carried over to all his ventures. “Like any other successful entrepreneur, they have a public and private persona,” she said. “I believe it’s his strength in his private persona that has overcome hurdles such as the economy, and I have no doubt that his very strong, very keen business sense has seen us past things that might have been limiting to other people.”
All About Alltech
After building businesses for two other companies in his early career, Pearse decided it was time to build his own. He founded Alltech in October of 1980, investing everything he had into the company. By Christmas, they were making a profit. Alltech’s early success was in large part due to its niche, utilizing yeast in the majority of its products.
“Yeast has application everywhere,” said Pearse. “Using yeast as a catalyst, we built a business. That business stretches from the human side, all the way through animals, to baker’s yeast, supplements, but most of our business has to do with improving the health of animals.”
Pearse holds master’s and doctorate degrees in fermentation from the University of Birmingham in England and attended the British University of Malting and Brewing. In addition to Alltech’s animal health and human health products, Alltech’s Lexington Brewing Company has been producing beer since 2000.
“Some people have a Ph.D in drinking beer, but I have a Ph.D in making beer,” Pearse said with a laugh.
Alltech also has a hand in Haitian coffee, Angus beef cattle and algae, but Pearse considers its people to be its greatest asset.
“We embrace our people,” said Pearse at the 2010 Alltech Symposium. “[When the economy was down last year] we increased salaries by 9 percent. We increased our work force by 15 percent. We entered 10 new countries. We did three times more capital investments, and we decreased our debt by 30 percent. We doubled our profitability.”
Alltech employs more than 1,900 people and has footholds in 120 countries. Pearse pinpoints his employees’ enthusiasm as the reason he wakes up every day.
“It’s the people that I have around me,” he said. “People who believe in what I’m doing, the people who have brought us where we are. We’re a fun bunch of people, many of whom have worked with me 20, 25, 30 years. They find ways to make our things happen.”
Mark said, “Some people come in and think it’s too much, but he takes the whole ‘failure is not an option’ saying to a whole other level. It’s not even a word he knows. You end up doing things you never thought you could do. There’s a very high retention rate at Alltech, because people are able to grow in roles because they do things they never thought they would. They’re constantly learning new things.”
And Pearse is constantly adding things to his “to-do” list.
“You’re talking to someone who is a brewer, who loves problems and loves how people make money out of donuts,” he said. “We have the opportunity to address the problems of the world, and the sky is limit so long as we have fun and the passion to make it happen.”
Choosing The WEG
It only took 10 minutes for Pearse to make a decision that he now calls the smartest move he ever made.
“It wasn’t so much ‘How much will this cost me?’ but rather ‘What we can afford to pay,’ ” he said of Alltech’s title sponsorship of the 2010 WEG. “We’d never been a sponsor of anything. I began to think about what would happen if we were to give them $10 million. The decision was made within 10 minutes, and the money was made within 10 minutes. The naysayers will always be there, but if you asked me to do it again, it wouldn’t take me 10 minutes. It would take me less than 10 seconds.”
Pearse announced his company’s sponsorship in 2007 and seemed to enjoy the shock that surrounded the announcement.
“Everyone was dumbfounded,” he said. “My wife told me to shut up and sit down and called me a fool. She said, ‘You talked to a man for 10 minutes and you’re giving him $10 million.’ But it was such a natural fit. The event was coming to a hometown, we’re a hometown business, we’re proud to be a Kentucky business, and we put them in a position where they could be successful.”
It’s estimated that the WEG’s economic impact to the state will top $167 million over the 16-day event.
“In the economic environment, the sponsorship was critical,” said Millard. “The people who might have been more than happy to support it had to think of their own employee benefit programs and services. It’s hard to give $500,000 to the WEG and then lay off people. It was a catch-22, and the fact that Dr. Lyons was able to step up and do it speaks of his passion for the industry and the success of the games.”
Alltech’s investment in the WEG has reached $32 million, but that doesn’t include additional efforts, like the 50 Alltech employees helping with the final preparations. Everyone from CPAs to engineers to purchasing and procurement staff is digging in and helping to lift the WEG off the ground.
“The opportunity of the Games is so massive, and it’s been shared. If there’s any legacy, it’s his generosity,” said Mark of his father. “It’s funny he’s in business because the sales motivate him, but it’s not about money, it’s about sharing. It’s him getting behind something and saying, ’We need to get this out and share it.’ ”
“When Alltech decides to do something she has speed,” said Pearse. “When they said they need help, we said, ‘What do you need?’ We’re in. My people love it, and they feel involved. You can’t put a price on that. Everyone needs a cause, and our cause is equestrian sport.”
But Why Horses?
Only about two percent of Alltech’s products are horse-related, and Pearse had no prior history with horses other than outings to the races with his family in Ireland.
So why horses? Why the World Equestrian Games?
“We want global recognition of Alltech and of Kentucky. We want people coming to Kentucky and establishing themselves here. Our intention is to elevate equestrian sport to a level it’s never been before,” Pearse said. “We want people to come here and say, ‘Wow, these Americans can do things right.’ We won’t let anything get in the way of our passion. Everyone knows that we are here to build the brand and do it through the WEG.”
Pearse doesn’t just see the WEG as an opportunity to boost his company to global recognition. He sees it as a way to increase awareness and love of equestrian sport as a whole.
“There’s a perception problem about horses,” said Pearse. “There’s a perception that this is a rich man’s sport, and certainly some of it is. But then you step back and say wait a second, one-third of all Americans have a horse or are associated with horses, and the average American salary is $30,000-40,000. The reality is it’s not a rich man’s sport. We need to get it across to the general public that this is amazing.”
The WEG’s arrival has benefited the Kentucky Horse Park, and the Lexington area, in many ways.
“The WEG coming has been a catalyst in moving the Kentucky Horse Park from being a wonderful facility to a world-class facility,” said Millard. “All eight disciplines will be on the same grounds. That’s a tremendous benefit. I look beyond the Games to the legacy for Kentucky, and the legacy is we will have the world-class facility for many years to come right here in Lexington.”
Over the past few years Pearse has helped build the brand of Kentucky and equestrian sport, and he refuses to let the WEG fail in any way.
“I hope it leaves behind awareness that there is a whole culture of equine sports other than racing,” said Millard. “I would hope there is more emphasis on equine sports and getting children involved in equine sports. The Games coming here have been a catalyst for parents to go and dip their toes into the equine community.”
Millard said she recently attended a grand prix show jumping event at the Horse Park. “The new indoor was filled with people who had never seen something like that before,” she said. “Five years ago, it would have only been horse people, and now you’re seeing an increase in people who want to see what horse activities are all about.”
As for Pearse, he’s fully invested, for the long haul. “We’re sticking with it. We’re dedicated to elevating equestrian sport, and the sport will never look back,” he said.
“What we have to do now is use this event to educate our young people,” he added. “This sport teaches you respect and responsibility. It teaches you to get out in the country and admire it. When it’s all said and done, if people say Alltech did a good job of making it spectacular, of educating us about horses, and giving people the opportunity to demonstrate their own niche in the sport, then we’ve done our job.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Pearse Lyons Sees Opportunities Everywhere" ran in the September 17 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.