The Lyons share just keeps on growing
PEARSE LYONS starts his day at 3.50am in Lexington, Kentucky, and one of the first things he does is put in a call to the European headquarters of his company, Alltech, in Dunboyne, Co Meath.
His assistant there, Mary, is ready to brief him on emails that came in overnight. It’s almost 9am in Ireland, which gives Lyons a five-hour head start back in Kentucky.
His first US assistant arrives into Alltech’s global headquarters in Nicholasville (just outside Lexington) at 5am, by which time Lyons (68) is out running. He runs every morning, regardless of where he is, usually making it back to complete one fast mile on the treadmill by 6am.
By 7am he is at his desk, dealing with a non-stop flow of communications and appointments concerning the Alltech machine, which reaches into 128 countries around the world, employing close to 3,000 people. This year the group will generate revenue of close to $1 billion, up from $600 million in 2011.
A native of Dundalk, Dr Pearse Lyons – as he is addressed by almost every employee at Alltech, including some who have worked for him for several decades – is a self-confessed workaholic. Dubbed “the energy bunny” by his close friend (and household name in the US) basketball coach John Calipari, Lyons is constantly on the go.
When he is not in Kentucky, he is on the road – sometimes up to 300 days of the year. He hops from Alltech location to Alltech location (a growing list) in his Gulf Stream jet, often accompanied by an entourage of senior management, accounting, legal and marketing staff.
Right now, Alltech is on a buying spree – snapping up companies all over North America – as it seeks to expand the multiple strands of its business.
Getting a handle on exactly what Alltech does is difficult, simply because it does so many things. But at the heart of it all, as Lyons himself will tell you, is yeast.
“Our whole business is based on yeast,” he says, in his stately office at Alltech HQ in Kentucky, as he began to explain how he got to where he is today.
Lyons studied biochemistry at UCD in the 1960s at the insistence of his mother (“I was a reluctant university student,” he explains) and graduated with first class honours.
Having worked for Harp lager in Dundalk while he was studying, Lyons decided he would become a brewer. So he went to the British School of Malting and Brewing in Birmingham and did a doctorate in brewing.
After qualifying with his PhD, he went to work for Irish Distillers, which he describes as “a dream job”.
“They were building the new distillery in Midleton and there were three or four of us on the design team. I was the process person on the team. It was magic,” he recalls.
Returning to UCD to study commerce by night, Lyons subsequently left Irish Distillers to take a much-coveted place on UCD’s newly-minted MBA programme.
He hated it, and dropped out, going back to brewing and taking a job with a company in England.
“I got to know the brewers again. My job was to go out and ask them, ‘What’s your problem?’, and develop products to solve their problems,” he explains.
A short time later Lyons was asked to move to the US, where he did the same job for another three years, based out of Kentucky.
In 1980, his employers offered him a small shareholding in the company. But his uncle – an entrepreneur – advised against it. “The sprat to catch the salmon, he called it,” recalls Lyons.
It was then that he decided to go out on his own.
“I gathered together my money, and went back to doing what I’ve always done, which is to ask a question and come up with a solution,” he says.
With an initial investment of $10,000 and enough money set aside to pay the mortgage and buy groceries for the family for a year (by this stage he was married with two children), Lyons used his fermentation expertise to continue helping brewers.