Throughout the month of March, I’ll be highlighting notable people of Irish ancestry. Today, I’m talking about Dr. Pearse Lyons, a native of the Emerald Isle and the founder of Alltech. Dr. Lyons passed away on March 8. He leaves a lasting impact on the Commonwealth.
In 2010, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Pearse Lyons in his studio perched on Catnip Hill Pike in Lexington.
The studio was nestled in the world headquarters of Alltech, the company founded in the early 80s in his garage in Lexington with just $10,000. Lyons, a native of Ireland, had come to the United States to work in the distilling industry. His boundless curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit led him to launch a business that would apply his insights as a fermentation expert to solve broader agricultural challenges. Alltech has grown to a global team of more than 5,000 people worldwide.
As with many of my guests, I asked him how he would like to be remembered. His thoughtful reply, delivered in a voice ever-so-gently tinged with his lovely Irish lilt, was “I want to create something. The legacy I would like to leave is ‘we made a difference.'”
And that he most certainly did.
Dr. Lyons left this world on March 8. His legacy continues on in the company he created, the family that he nurtured, the community he supported and the people he led.
It seems fitting that this St. Patrick’s Day, many across the Bluegrass will pause to remember Dr. Lyons. As a funeral mass in his memory gets underway on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, the 39th annual Alltech Lexington St. Patrick’s parade will step off. The parade this year is dedicated to Dr. Lyons, a long-time supporter.
As I reflect on Dr. Lyons’ life and legacy, I observe these lessons:
People with moxie come from people with moxie.
When I asked him to name the most influential person in his life, Dr. Lyons named his mother, Margaret. He described her as a “loving, caring…dictator.” She had been unable to go to school, so she insisted that her six children get a good education. Dr. Lyons went the distance, becoming the first Irishman to receive a formal degree in brewing and distilling from the University of Birmingham.
When he decided to strike out on his own – in the United States, with a family to care for – his mother’s response was “What took you so long?” She saw his potential long before he recognized it, and encouraged him to pursue his vision.
People with moxie get up and get it done.
Dr. Lyons famously started his day before 4 a.m., long before most people are even conscious. He touched base with his teams around the world so that by the time the Lexington office opened, he had a pulse on the day.
Lyons also customarily started his day with a run and was very proud to have run his first marathon at the age of 50.
The key to much of his success? He was a quick decision maker who approached life with the confidence, curiosity, and freedom of a scientist.
“If you make a mistake, you make a mistake,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
Mistakes bring you one step closer to solutions and discoveries, he believed, and every setback is a chance to find a new way around a challenge.
People with moxie invest in other people.
I asked Dr. Lyons to describe leadership in one word. With little hesitation, he said, “Leadership is a love of your people. Leaders love their people. It’s as simple as that.”
Dr. Lyons believed you get more satisfaction when you do things for and with people, not when you look for what you can get out of people. He believed that good leaders, leaders who love their people, put them in places where they can flourish.
While Alltech is a great achievement, he exuded more joy in our interview over the hundreds of students who obtained their PhDs through Alltech. He was a lifelong learner who deeply believed that “science should be exciting.”
Two of those PhDs are his own children. His daughter Dr. Aoife Lyons is a licensed clinical psychologist and global director of educational initiatives for Alltech, while son Dr. Mark Lyons is now the president and chairman.
By his side, all those years in business and in life was his wife, Diedre. She continues as director of corporate image and design for the company she co-founded with her husband and directs philanthropic endeavors.
The list of philanthropic endeavors is long and reaches around the globe. From serving as the title sponsor of the World Equestrian Games to building state of the art labs in elementary schools to scholarships to innovation competitions, the Lyons’ and Alltech have impacted countless lives.
I am grateful for the opportunity I had to talk to Dr. Lyons, and I am more certain now than ever that he indeed made a difference.
Did he make a difference to you?