PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Mark Lyons

( Alltech )

Mark Lyons still remembers his first job – carefully placing the round stickers on the first alcohol textbook that his father, Pearse Lyons, wrote in 1980. Mark was only 3 years old at the time, the same year that Alltech was founded by his father. Over the years, Mark’s role has evolved from helping his sister label textbooks and palletizing bags in production to conducting research in the lab and leading a global team of more than 5,000 people around the world as Alltech’s president and CEO.

Although Mark grew up within the company and always planned to return to it someday, he admits he considered other paths after he completed his education. He still remembers the advice his father gave him as he weighed his options.

“Look, you need to know how to do something,” Pearse told his son. “The American education system is tremendous in teaching you how to think, but you don’t know how to make something yet.”

That conversation led Mark to study brewing and distilling in Scotland to deepen his understanding of fermentation. And the rest is history, as Mark delved into what he refers to as the greatest experience of his life.

He shares his views on leadership, strategy and what he’s learned during his career with Alltech with Farm Journal’s PORK.

Q. How does your company help and work with its customers? 
From the beginning, my father believed it was important to make any of his capabilities or his team’s capabilities available to the Alltech customer base. If there's a customer challenge, we want to try and solve it. We’ve really seen this in spades throughout COVID-19, because many of our colleagues work so closely with their customers. The first piece was offering psychological support, trying to give customers insight and resources from what we're seeing in other parts of the world. We even made all of our COVID resources freely available on our website. Then, it was the nitty gritty of nutritional discussions and how they can be thinking about their diets and what new technologies they may want to utilize. Finally, we're helping them with other performance and production issues. Ultimately, there’s a broader role of the Alltech employee to be able to harness the resources of the company and make sure they can deliver those resources to their customers.

Q. What is your business philosophy?
A big part of our philosophy revolves around entrepreneurialism and making sure that culture remains strong throughout the business. As companies grow bigger, they became more bureaucratic and slow down in terms of decision making. We want to have an empowered, entrepreneurial frontline, where individuals feel they have the ability to respond and to take advantage of opportunities. 

I think the other word that comes to mind is collaboration. It's my belief that the world we're in right now has become too connected and dynamic for any one company to say they are going to do it on their own. I think that element of collaboration is really important. You can do so much more when you start to realize, “Look, we're really good at this thing and you're really good at this other thing. If we put those together, we're going to end up doing something so much bigger.” That's the type of message our industry needs right now – there is so much potential opportunity. 

Q. Describe a typical day on the job for you.
I spend a lot of time engaging with people, whether that is talking to our colleagues and listening to their ideas or sharing ideas from one geography to another while resolving challenges and removing obstacles. A big part of my role is to connect those dots, encourage our colleagues and remove any roadblocks in front of them. Typically, I spend a lot of time traveling – with operations in more than 120 countries, it’s critical to remain connected. Travel gives you a chance to build that connection and make the world a lot smaller. Then, when challenges come up, you’ve built that trust, you’ve built that relationship and the communication is seamless. 

Q. How has the business changed over the years?
When I joined officially in 2001, we were going through a major push to broaden and add more technological capabilities. We were building our own production facilities, and I was involved in establishing a fermentation facility in Mexico, assisting with a large acquisition in Serbia and building a new yeast facility in Brazil. We’ve also been through a period of acquisitions. Our growth cycle has allowed us to get closer to the end user and speed up innovation. In one regard, it's the exact same family company. But in another regard, we now have more than 5,000 people, and this requires a certain discipline and determination on the part of management to keep our ethos in place. We want to be responsive, to stay entrepreneurial and to commit to pushing the decisions to the local level. We want to foster empowerment, cut out the bureaucracy and keep the structure flat. We talk day-in and day-out, about making sure that we don't create a complicated company so we can respond to customer needs and market changes as quickly as possible. 

Q. What concerns do you have about the swine industry?
Continuity of our industry is my biggest concern. I’m a little reticent about, “Let's get back to normal.” I don’t think that's where we want to go. We need to learn a lesson from the packing plant slowdowns and market disruptions. When one part of the chain is impacted, the whole chain is impacted. The question is: what can we do to ensure we always have the ability to respond to an outside challenge like this?

Q. What are the greatest opportunities in the swine industry today? 
We must change the way we think about export markets. We need to get to know those markets and figure out what they actually want. China is a big part of that, but there are a lot of other markets as well. I think the closer connections we have to those markets, the better understanding we will have of those value-added opportunities to be created. It requires thinking differently about how we are producing animals and the technologies we're using to make our system even more efficient and more robust. 

Q. Who inspires you? 
Both of my parents have had a huge impact on my life. My father was a tremendous mentor and has been an inspiration throughout my life. I saw him evolve over the years as a leader, a businessperson, and as a scientist. He was also really good at helping me connect with other mentors like University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who describes mentors as a kitchen cabinet – a group of people you can rely on and trust. I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my life. I’m also inspired by those who can take what they have achieved in life and figure out how to give back and engage others through it. I think that kind of leadership is powerful, especially in moments right now.

Q. What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career?
I found in my time with Alltech, that the ability to be good at collaborating with others has created more opportunity than trying to individually be the best you can be. It’s my belief that nobody achieves much of any worth on their own; or, at least at the end of it, they don't have anyone to celebrate with. 

Q. If you could go back and do something differently in your career, what would it be and why?
I stayed in China for six years, building our business in the world’s largest feed market. I enjoyed that time, but I wonder now if coming back a little sooner would have been good. I was needed over there, and I stayed there for good reasons. The conversations I had with my father during that time were tremendous and our relationship became stronger when I was in China because we got to work with each other more. We lost my father in 2018. Although the transition was something that couldn’t have been foreseen, being back here and working hand-in-hand with him on a more day-to-day basis is certainly something I’ll always think about.

Continue to Page 2 where Mark discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the pork industry and what he expects the swine industry will look like in 20 years.


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