Alltech is an agricultural sciences company with a global reach, thanks in part to business aviation.
May 20, 2019
A few years ago, Mike Craft was cleaning Alltech’s ramp on Lexington, KY’s Blue Grass Airport. The company’s maintenance director had swept for debris, cut the grass and was about to spray some weeds when Alltech’s co-founder, Deirdre Lyons, stopped him.
“We don’t put chemicals in the ground,” Deirdre Lyons said gently. “We remove weeds naturally.” Ever since, the hangar staff has pulled the weeds by hand. For Craft, that moment drove home Alltech’s commitment to its founding principles.
The agricultural sciences company develops all-natural feed additives and methods to make food safer, more productive and more nutritious. Dr. Pearce Lyons came to the United States with his wife Deirdre and in 1980 founded their business in Kentucky, partly because its rolling green hills resembled their native Ireland, and partly because of the local talent pool of farmers, scientists and “agripreneurs.”
“Good for the animal, good for the consumer and good for the environment – that’s been our driving principle since my parents founded the company,” said Dr. Mark Lyons, Alltech’s president and CEO.
Alltech was ahead of the curve on all-natural foods, and the company has grown quickly. Today, it has more than 100 production facilities worldwide, sells in 120 countries, has 5,000 employees and over $2 billion in annual revenue.
“This company moves fast,” said Craft, who today leads the aviation department. “It’s what allowed it to become a leader in the field, and they could not have done it without an airplane.”
DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL
Alltech flies two airplanes. Its King Air 350 visits facilities and customers across North America, also bringing customers to Alltech’s nutrigenomics laboratory and demonstration farms in Lexington. Its Gulfstream G550 performs the same role for overseas missions.
The company leadership tries to visit every plant at least once a year. Typically, they string together a dozen stops in a one-week trip, visiting customers along the way. The King Air is efficient for these big circuits, even when they take leadership up to Northern Canada; each leg is about a one-hour flight.
Since the 1980s, Alltech has stepped up to larger and more capable aircraft, most recently the G550. In 2017, the company added the King Air.
“This company moves fast. It’s what allowed it to become a leader in the field, and they could not have done it without an airplane.”
“The Gulfstream was transformative for us. We suddenly could go nonstop from Lexington to China and make these round-the-world trips,” said Mark Lyons. “The King Air, on the other hand, is much more flexible. We can pick up customers inexpensively and bring them here, or we can do a blitz and see colleagues at 10 sites in a week.”
Before adding the twin turboprop to its fleet, Alltech was limited to landing at airfields with a 5,000-foot-long runway. The company also had to consider weight limits and hangar space for the Gulfstream.
“A lot of our customers are in very rural areas,” explained Craft. “But we were landing [the Gulfstream] at larger airports and sometimes driving two or three hours to get to them. So, we saw the need for a smaller airplane that could get into those shorter airfields to service our customers directly.”
THE 1,000 FLIGHT HOUR YEAR
Besides, the Gulfstream already was fully utilized. In 2012, Alltech flew more than 1,000 hours on the airplane.
Before he passed away, Pearce Lyons traveled constantly, meeting with customers and employees at every level of the company.
“It was so important for my father to get in front of our colleagues,” said Mark Lyons. “They showed him what was happening in our local markets, he shared his vision with them, and they became multipliers of that vision.”
Pearce Lyons always traveled extensively. Before coming to America, he drove nearly 100,000 miles across the United Kingdom, developing his advanced fermentation technologies. He also was among Delta Airlines’ most frequent flyers.
Mostly flying overnight, Pearce Lyons slept in the back of the Gulfstream and held meetings daily. That extensive travel schedule grew the business, but it strained the pilots.
To meet the constant demands of international flying, Alltech’s aviation operation, which never had more than six pilots, would supplement their crews with contract pilots and charter flights, but primarily they preposition themselves around the globe.
“The Gulfstream was transformative for us. We suddenly could go nonstop from Lexington to China and make these round-the-world trips.”
“We would send a crew ahead and have them in position when the airplane got there,” said Chief Pilot Jared Scrafton. “We would take off with one crew, they would time out, Dr. Lyons would have a meeting, the new crew would fly the airplane overnight, and the first crew would have leapfrogged to the next destination.”
The Alltech aviation team members recall one particularly intense trip when they put 100 hours on the airplane in two weeks, and they needed two full crews to do it.
TRAINING FOR OVERSEAS FLYING
The schedule has settled down somewhat, but Alltech still does about 300 hours of international flying a year, in addition to the domestic travel on the King Air.
“We use the Gulfstream to do these round-the-world lecture tours, bringing our top scientists to meet customers,” said Mark Lyons, “and we do one or two stops a day.”
Alltech’s pilots have to train regularly in order to accomplish so much overseas flying. They all complete FlightSafety’s international procedures training, and Scrafton attends NBAA’s International Operators Conference yearly. When he returns, he shares the material with his colleagues.
“Keeping up with the changes in international operations is hard to do,” said Scrafton. “That training takes us to the level of professionalism we need to operate in all the countries we do.”
While they no longer leapfrog crews back-to-back, Alltech’s safety management system calls for flying longer missions with a third crew member on board. That pilot will stay out of the cockpit to rest. When his duty shift starts, he’ll take over the flight deck with fresh eyes, thereby avoiding complacency.
To manage slot reservations, overflight and landing permits, visas and security arrangements, Alltech uses a third-party logistics planner, Collins Aerospace’s ARINCDirect. “You have to know the window for making last-minute changes for every country,” said Scheduler/Dispatcher Andrew Strauss.
Strauss was the first hire Craft made after taking over the flight department. “Andrew makes our lives so much easier,” said Scrafton. “His knowledge, from his charter and airline background, is invaluable. Especially if we have a change on the road, or if we’re over in Asia and sleeping, he’s here in Lexington working on the changes for the next day.”
Learn more about Alltech at alltech.com.
When the previous head of its aviation operation left, Alltech in 2016 offered the top job to Mike Craft, the company’s maintenance chief, giving him a second job title: aviation department manager.
“With the seat I’m in now, it’s a business, and you have to run it that way,” said Craft. “It’s like a puzzle, getting the skills, schedules, budgets and procedures right. I like how it all fits together.”
Although he manages the overall operation, as Alltech’s only technician Craft says, “The maintenance of the airplanes comes first. Then, I step back into the managerial role.”
Taking on the managerial challenge required Craft to make some changes. First, he hired a dispatcher and pilots who valued professionalism, teamwork and taking initiative. Then, Craft had to learn to delegate more.
“When you’re on the maintenance side in business aviation, you work alone, and you become very self-reliant. In management, you need to count on others, and initially I wasn’t letting go. It wasn’t even about control; it was just habit. But now I have five people who are more than capable, and they’re all self-starters.”
One Gulfstream G550 and one King Air 350
Headquartered at Blue Grass Airport (LEX) in Lexington, KY
Four pilots, one scheduler/dispatcher and one director of aviation who also serves as director of maintenance