Brendon Radford is the milk, quality, and animal health (MQAH) sales development manager at a large New Zealand organization. He is a results-driven leader with 27 years of management experience and extensive expertise in agriculture and food manufacturing requirements from the farm to the consumer.
Prior to his time in sales, Radford was operations manager, technical and assurance; product safety and quality manager; and the manager of product safety and quality at a large New Zealand dairy operation.
Radford’s areas of expertise include fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), manufacturing, quality systems, operational management, farming systems, and animal welfare requirements along with importing and exporting country requirements. He specializes in food safety improvement, system development, compliance leadership, restructuring and new team formation, and the importance of leadership in delivering value-added results.
In this interview, we discuss an auditee’s approach to auditing, compare internal audits and the third-party audit function, and the importance of paying it forward to the next generation in one’s career.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: Your experiences are a bit different from those of many we profile because you are not actually a certified auditor, however, you have worked closely with auditors throughout your career. How did you first become introduced to the auditing function, and what have you learned from auditors in the time since?
BRENDON RADFORD: As you mention, I’m not a certified auditor, but I hope you and the Exemplar Global audience may find my story interesting.
Some time ago, I worked at a small manufacturing operation when we were audited by a team of professionals. Scary process! The lead auditor was Andrew Baines [current Exemplar Global president and CEO]. My interest in quality was fed by Andrew’s dedication and drive. He explained well and always had facts to back up his ‘why’ statements.
I went on to become an assistant manager of a manufacturing plant within a larger manufacturing operation that had 11 plants on site. The site was under its annual audit and Andrew was once again the lead auditor. My plant passed the audit, but many of the rest of the operations plants were placed on notice, so it seems that the lessons I had learned about the auditing process had paid off. I helped the plant develop a simple, clear, and user-friendly QA system.
EG: Have you developed any habits or techniques that have helped to instill quality at the organizations for which you’ve worked?
BR: Yes. Let me give you an example. I started my career putting milk bottles into a washer for a small-town milk station. I moved up the ranks to senior first assistant and into a new city milk operation, where I was working six days on and one day off, doing a 12-hour shift from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m. Suffice it to say, it was hard!
While I was there, I helped develop their QA system, including the operating procedures for the site. My foreman had been in the sector for more than 30 years but unfortunately, he was illiterate. Although he was fantastic at his job, this made the deployment of manuals and written processes difficult. I therefore set up a manual template with pictures at every step and minimal written content.
I needed to get the technical content out of the foreman’s head, so I followed him through a process, wrote down the steps, added in the pictures, and then had a second person use it and review everything. Once I was sure we had it right, I issued the manual with the foreman’s name as the owner. This guy was proud to have produced a written document that the staff had to follow. It was amazing to see the positive effect it had on him and the staff—including me, by the way, because there were days at 1 a.m. when I had to open the manual to refresh myself on how to fire the boiler or kick the compressors into gear.
EG: Sounds like a win-win situation.
BR: Very much so.
Now, quite frankly, the staff at that time found registration to be something of a pain. They considered it as something the bigwigs wanted. What I did to help them understand its importance was to write a procedure using the format above, and I did it on something I knew they all understood—I wrote the procedure on how to select, open, and consume a can of beer. I purchased a few cans of beer, then at the end of the shift got people to select, open, and consume one using the procedure. It was a great laugh, and it broke the system down into a logical and simple process. We completed a write-up of the clean-in-place (CIP) system the following week.
EG: What have been your experiences in leading internal audits and working with the third-party audit process?
BR: At one of my prior positions, I led a strong quality team of 67 people. I set a procedure for internal spot-check audits monthly and product tracebacks on a per-shift basis. We also managed the New Zealand government regulatory audits plus the market access requirements for 140 countries.
During this time, we were undergoing more than 300 third-party audits per year across the country, and I hosted audit bodies from big players in the E.U., the United States, China, and Russia. Each had a different approach and a specific focus, but all of them worked on food safety, record keeping, and training, so the process was very consistent.
Some of these audits had huge revenues attached to them—in the billions in some cases, so it was a bit stressful. We never failed one during my time in that role. I always ensured that, when issues were found during the audit, the corrective action process was deployed prior to the auditor departing the building. Further, we also provided the root cause analysis procedure at the exit meeting. By doing this we demonstrated improvement and growth, and clearly communicated that we took the process seriously.
During one huge customer audit, the auditor found a leak in an airlock. By the time the auditor was halfway through the building we had the maintenance, hygiene, and cleaning staff out to address the problem. The fix was done quickly, the procedures were amended for the exit meeting, and staff briefings were held over the next three days. The lead auditor told us at the exit meeting that he thought the building was on fire on the day he discovered the leak, as people with cleaning gear, clipboards, and sanitizer kept passing him on the stairwell as he headed down the flights of stairs. That issue was recorded as a note not as a noncomformance. Being proactive has its advantages!
EG: How do you communicate the most important quality information across large organizations?
BR: I have learned to keep the focus on making things simple, keeping equipment clean, and ensuring that procedures are easy to follow.
In 2017 I moved from managing quality at a site to farm quality and food safety. I lead a small team of people who train auditors working for the government to ensure that regulatory requirements were covered.
We worked with upwards of 10,000 farms and given that scale we wanted to ensure we had a simple and clear on-farm QA program. As on-farm regulations changed quickly, we needed a way to communicate what was most critical as well as new or pending changes. I took my team into a meeting and presented the requirement that we all needed to be as clear and simple as possible in our communications. We brainstormed and left the room with the idea of using a traffic light system. After all, everyone drives and follows the lights. Therefore, critical regulatory data became red; this was assessed yearly and had to be completed without exception. Then, we used yellow for information that required some consideration, since it might be forthcoming law. Finally, green was used to denote general information we felt would prove helpful. It was an extremely simple process to deploy and was easy to follow.
EG: It seems that you have been well supported by great mentors throughout your career. What would you like to pass on in turn?
BR: I was converted to quality early on by good people, and it has been my privilege in the intervening years to always have very talented people reporting to me. Having great people who care has made my role easy and enjoyable.
I hope that in leading by example I have left a few of my troops with the same passion and drive to improve. It’s all about implementing simple processes that work for the good of the people, not just to get a certificate on a wall.
My time in quality has always been made easier by having a person like Andrew to help guide, support, and mentor me. I now consider Andrew a friend, and I am sure many other people in the food sector can think back to how he has helped and supported them in understanding quality systems and keeping systems simple and clear so that they can function for the people and not just for the purpose of getting a certificate.
Without good people, quality certification is nothing more than a nice wall hanging. It is only through regular interactions with audit professionals who can mentor, support, and challenge us that we can build the collective willingness to improve. I am thankful for the auditors I have experienced over the years—the good, the bad, and everyone in-between!