When Joseph Slawek was a student at St. Patrick High School on Chicago’s Northwest side, he’d hop the city bus in his Portage Park neighborhood and travel three and a half miles to a job at Food Materials Corporation, a flavors manufacturer located at California Avenue and Irving Park Road.
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Young Joe Slawek’s entry level duties varied from sweeping floors to helping extract vanilla from vanilla beans.
“Food Materials Corporation was a flavor company with a particular strength in vanilla,” Slawek relates, noting that the Windy City company was eventually purchased by the New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc.
During those early days in the plant, the impressionable Slawek never dreamed he would not only work at Food Materials Corp., as it was familiarly called, for 21 years, but that he would one day establish his own exemplary, globally respected, award-winning flavors company.
In 1987, Slawek boldly and enthusiastically pursued his dream of developing what he calls “a new kind of flavor company.” He envisioned building an organization that could compete with the largest international flavor companies across a range of market segments, but also connect with customers by developing close relationships in a congenial, small company fashion.
Meet Slawek’s brainchild, FONA International winner of the coveted 2016 Food Quality & Safety Award. This prestigious honor from Food Quality & Safety magazine recognizes the dedication and achievement of an organization that upholds the highest food standards supported by quantifiable results.
“Our founding vision was to be the high-tech, high-touch alternative to business as usual in the flavor industry,” Slawek says. “Our approach to serving the needs of food and beverage manufacturers has always been to combine world-class expertise, technology innovation, and quality programs. To that we apply entrepreneurial energy and values-driven culture to deliver unmatched service, speed, quality, and flexibility.”
Under Slawek’s leadership, first as a salesman, president, and CEO, and now as board chairman and CEO, FONA International creates and produces flavors (some 2,329 different, unique flavors in the 12 months leading up to August 2016) for many of the largest food, beverage, and nutritional companies in the world. FONA offers flavor solutions for the confection, grain, beverage, performance nutrition, over the counter, and emerging markets from its state-of-the-art 33-acre headquarters campus in historic Geneva, Ill.
The truly global FONA also has locations in Canada (for sales, flavor creation, prototyping/applications, redundant lab, manufacturing, and distribution), China (which includes a customer innovation center, customer training center, sales, flavor creation, prototyping and applications, sensory testing, distribution through all of APAC, and manufacturing), the U.K. (which features sensory testing, manufacturing, and distribution), and Mexico (home of logistics and distribution for all of Latin America). FONA also has strategic partnerships in India and Australia.
Top Priority: Food Safety
“By the time I founded FONA, I knew that food safety was the top priority for us as an organization,” Slawek says. “By that time in my career, I knew that our very existence required that we commit our resources to safe, high-quality, audited facilities, and which, by extension, means safe products. At FONA, we have been, and will always be, dedicated to food safety as an essential principle.”
This dedication is spelled out emphatically in FONA’s mission statement:
We strive for excellence in all endeavors. We set our goals to achieve total customer satisfaction by delivering premium quality specification-conforming products and exceptional service, second to none. On this we will not compromise.
So what are FONA’s secrets to food quality and safety success?
“We have some principles within FONA that we try to live by,” Slawek begins. “We work hard to be audit-ready 24/7. We want to live an audit-ready lifestyle that allows our customers and industry organizations like AIB (American Institute of Baking) and SQF (Safe Quality Food) to inspect us with or without notice. At FONA, we welcome them with open arms. We want them to see that we strive to be audit-ready 24/7.”
FONA has been a leader in SQF, Slawek emphasizes. “FONA first achieved SQF certification in 2009 and was SQF Manufacturer of the Year in 2012,” he mentions. “At FONA, we view customer audits as an opportunity to improve, as an external organization reviews our processes and offers advice and consultation. As a result, employees are reminded each day of FONA’s commitment to food quality and safety.”
That commitment includes all-important monetary investments. Slawek points out that, every year, FONA invests six-figure amounts in state-of-the-art analytical equipment alone, with more than half a million dollars invested during 2015 and 2016.
“In the past year, instrumentation upgrades for FONA’s product safety and quality laboratory include two automated instruments to perform refractive index and specific gravity,” says John Budin, PhD, FONA’s director of product safety and quality (PS&Q). “A second Fourier transform infrared spectrometer was added to evaluate some raw materials for purity.”
A Setaflash flash point unit was acquired to compliment other flash point methods FONA uses.
“All flavors must have a flash point to satisfy U.S. Department of Transportation requirements for proper packaging and shipping,” Dr. Budin points out.
For research and innovation, FONA purchased a high end Gerstel autosampler for gas chromatography. “This autosampler is connected to an Agilent gas chromatograph, coupled with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer,” Dr. Budin relates. “This instrument has also been useful for troubleshooting non-conformances.”
In 2015 FONA installed an electronic temperature monitoring system for the company’s walk-in cooler, which is used to store some raw materials and a few finished goods. “This system notifies team members immediately via their work cellphone if the cooler reaches a pre-determined temperature,” says Dr. Budin. “The benefit is they can respond quickly with corrective action.”
Also in 2015, FONA upgraded its campus-wide camera systems to enhance the food defense program with higher resolution of recordings.
FONA’s newest big thing is a laboratory information management system (LIMS). It was purchased and configuration began in May this year, following a successful proof of concept phase (POC) launched in December 2015.
“The intent of the POC was to map business software and instrumentation to assure that LIMS was compatible with FONA’s existing systems, and also to assure that the project was accurately budgeted,” says Janis Diasio, FONA’s PS&Q project manager.
The company expects to see a great number of LIMS benefits, such as improved laboratory and quality monitoring efficiency, and greater business intelligence, traceability, and transparency, Diasio relates.
Jonathon DiMaggio, FONA’s analytical laboratory supervisor, emphasizes that what makes this amount of investment even more impressive is the relative size of FONA and its ability to sustain growth. The company continues to grow and increase in revenue year after year, which is unusual in the food industry, he notes.
“FONA is a mid-sized, privately-owned flavor company,” DiMaggio points out. “So the investment in high-tech and high-quality systems and instrumentation is truly remarkable. It shows the company’s commitment to quality. Plus, it enables us to compete with the largest flavor companies in the world, and win.”
The investment and initiatives implemented at FONA have made large, positive impacts on the business, DiMaggio adds. “The impact of reducing test turnaround time has made FONA more competitive in the flavor industry,” he elaborates. “The impact of reduced customer non-conformances and improvement of percent on time to commit are dramatic.”
As testament to the company’s commitment to food quality and safety, FONA has established this list of core values that are instilled in each employee.
- Do the right thing for all stakeholders in all situations.
- Demonstrate a relentless, passionate partner-centricity.
- Establish and nurture a high-performance work environment.
- Effectively steward our resources and opportunities.
- Invest consistently and effectively in our growth and innovation.
- Share generously with our people and community.
- Outperform our industry in pursuit of profitable growth.
“One health and safety principle that we live by, and something we always say, is that we want to send our people home safer and healthier than when they came to work,” Slawek adds. “That’s why we have employee benefits like health programs, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training, safety training, and fitness classes, to name a few.”
FONA management is extremely proud of the feedback received from MRA (The Management Association), an independent third party who conducts their biannual, company-wide employee engagement studies. This study is a 72-item questionnaire that measures employee engagement and satisfaction, and is rated as favorable or unfavorable for each question.
In the 2015 study, FONA’s PS&Q team had 82 percent of their staff stating that they are engaged in their job, compared to a national manufacturing industry norm of 30 percent. The employee engagement of the PS&Q group improved by 49 points from 2013, the largest gain among FONA’s other departments. The PS&Q group as a whole reported a 97 percent satisfaction with their jobs, compared to 80 percent as a national norm for a non-union manufacturing setting, as compiled by MRA.
No Stranger to Awards
FONA has been recognized in 2016 as a Great Workplace in Manufacturing & Production in the Small & Medium Companies category, as evaluated via independent employee surveys conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute.
For the 11th consecutive year, FONA has also been awarded Chicago Best and Brightest Company to Work For honors in 2016 by the National Association of Business Resources (NABR). FONA has won other national awards from the same organization for five years running, according to Tonya Hubartt, MS, FONA’s human resources director.
In 2016, FONA won a “101 Best & Brightest Elite Award,” the highest rating specifically for Compensation, Benefits and Employee Solutions. “We’ve received an elite award for 11 straight years, and in 2011 and 2014 we won Best of the Best, meaning we were ranked Number 1 in Chicagoland,” Hubartt boasts. “These awards are a reflection of how FONA’s 200-plus employees feel about FONA and our company’s leadership under Joe Slawek.”
Ask Slawek to share what he finds satisfying and rewarding about having a flavor company, an exemplary one to boot, and he is quick to cite the human component. “For me, it always comes back to the people,” he relates. “I really do find the people part of the flavor business most exciting. Being a people person, I enjoy interacting with our customers and with our FONA family members. The FONA people and our customers make this all worthwhile.”
In January 2016 (recognizing performance from 2015), FONA launched a special and innovative Partnership Award Program with its vendors and customers.
“FONA initiated the award program as a way to recognize valued partners and their achievements,” says Barb Pugesek, FONA’s director of customer and culture excellence. “Categories include Speed & Service, Good Name & Reputation, Innovation, and Collaboration, among several others. FONA’s third-party chemistry and microbiological testing laboratory was given the Quality & Safety Vendor Partnership Award.”
Not only that, in June 2016, FONA hosted a Strategic Supplier Summit at its headquarters to communicate FONA’s needs and goals to suppliers with a new, welcoming, transparent approach, which Pugesek says is atypical in the flavor industry.
“Suppliers spent a day at FONA, where they saw presentations and had one-on-one time with FONA leaders,” Pugesek explains. “The group learned about FONA’s founding principles, as well as the company’s plans for the future. More than 60 vendors attended, with about half being raw material vendors. Other visitors included everyone from creative partners to uniform suppliers.”
Slawek believes it’s essential to build strong partnerships, whether within FONA or externally among customers. “It’s a pleasure to join customers as they create successful, safe products that consumers will love,” he elaborates. “When it comes to our people, it’s thrilling to see them use their skills and talent, and watch as they come together and grow.”
“When people ask me what my favorite flavor is, I always joke, ‘my favorite flavors are the ones that sell,’” Slawek quips. “Truly, it’s a privilege to make a flavor selected to help power the preferences for a consumer brand. It’s so exciting for me to see FONA create safe, high quality flavors that truly fill a market need for our valued customers.”