After the passing of Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech a year ago, I wrote this tribute piece for FFT.ie:
Dr Thomas Pearse Lyons was a man who looked beyond the surface. Many business empires are built on marketing and spin, but Dr Lyons, a consummate scientist, spent his career looking deeper into animal nutrition, brewing and distilling. His death on March 8 left behind a vast empire, with a business that employed more than four thousand people in ninety countries and spanned agrifoods, brewing, and distilling – a fitting legacy for a man who had an endless thirst for knowledge, and a mind like a razor.
Thomas Pearse Lyons (1944-2018) grew up in Dundalk. One of six children, his mother ran a grocers, and it is she who he credits with his drive and entrepreneurial spirit. Aged just 14 he started working in the laboratory of the local Harp Brewery – his parents were both teetotallers, but on his mother’s side he came from five generations of coopers to the great distilleries of Dublin.
On the insistence of his mother, he studied biochemistry in University College Dublin. Later, in 1971, he received his Phd in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham, after which he worked for Irish Distillers, playing a pivotal role in the design of the new Midleton Distillery, a facility that was to become central to the battle to save Irish whiskey from annihilation during the lean years of the 1980s.
But while his education and experience in Ireland and the UK laid the groundwork for his success, it was in America that he achieved his most remarkable feats.
Emigrating to Kentucky in the 1976, he worked with local ethanol distillers to help improve their processes. After four years, he finally made the move that would define his life’s work, and, using a loan of 10,000, he started a company in the garage of his house.
At this stage he was married to Deirdre, and they had two young children, Mark and Aoife. It was a risky move for anyone, but especially someone who is married with a young family. The company, Alltech, specialised in animal nutrients, and in its first year it turned over a million dollars.
As the value of his company soared, he diversified into brewing and distilling, as well as authoring a number of texts on the subjects. He became involved in philanthropy, building laboratories for schools, and helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake in 2010. While he was a well-known figure in the US, back home he was less well known, save for appearances in annual rich lists. It seemed a shame that one of our great success stories was not as celebrated in his native land as he was in the US – but all that was about to change.
The Irish whiskey category was booming, and Dr Lyons stated to consider bringing his brewing and distilling skills back home. In 2013 he started to search Dublin for somewhere to build a distillery. His choice of location show just how he was able to see beyond the surface – a dilapidated church in the Liberties, the spire of which had been removed. Although the site had a rich history that went back centuries, in recent times the site had been left to decay, with the church itself being used as a lighting showroom. There were other site he could have chosen – places less expensive to build, with less heritage and fewer complications – but he did not shy away from a challenge. A complete rebuild and restoration of the church and its surrounds saw the billionaire spend some 20 million euro creating the Pearse Lyons Distillery At St James’s, complete with stained glass windows showing the saint after which the church was named, and one of Dr Lyons’s cooper ancestors. Opening last September, it is a fitting monument to a man who blazed a trail in the sciences and in his many philanthropic work.
As with any business leader, it can be sometimes hard to get a sense of who they are. Dr Lyons always cut a dash, with his dickie bows, sing-songs and boundless positivity. For a man who was able to look beyond the immediately visible, his death leaves you wondering what drove him to achieve all he did.
There is of course, a very simple answer: Family. His family was built into his success from day one – Alltech takes its name from his daughter, Dr Aoife Louise Lyons, while its signature colour was chosen by his son, Dr Mark Lyons. Mark and Aoife are senior members of the firm. Dr Lyons’s wife Deirdre is director of corporate image and design, and even designed the stained glass windows in St James’s, while she also oversees Alltech’s philanthropic works worldwide. Speaking about his wife upon the opening of the distillery, Dr Lyons said: “The builders said that they loved working with Deirdre because she never changed her mind. Never. She has the vision of what she wants to do. I think this is what makes us a formidable team. It’s telling our story. It’s history.”
Dr Lyons’s death on March 8, 2018 from a heart problem, marked the sudden end to a remarkable life. His son Mark said in a statement: ““He saw farther into the horizon than anyone in the industry, and we, as his team, are committed to delivering on the future he envisioned.”
Dr Pearse Lyons will be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to science, to business, and to making the world a better place. But beyond the empire he created, it is his dedication to his family is the most inspirational aspect of his life – he looked beyond the horizon, but he never forgot that family was life’s most important work.