Interview

From summer job to FMEA winner: Kate Clawson reflects on her food industry journey

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Kate Clawson poses with Food Manufacture editor Bethan Grylls and host Mark Watson
Kate Clawson poses with Food Manufacture editor Bethan Grylls and host Mark Watson

Related tags Food manufacture excellence awards

Food Manufacture speaks to Kate Clawson, head of operations at Sleaford Quality Foods and winner of Factory Manager of the Year at the 2024 Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, about her passion for the food sector and the motivations behind her success.

In September 2024, Kate Clawson will celebrate 25 years at Sleaford Quality Foods, an ingredients supplier based in Lincolnshire.

Clawson first started with the business while studying for her A Levels, initially working evenings before taking on a few extra shifts during the summer holidays. At this stage, she was still unsure about what she wanted to do for a career, but took to the role quickly and decided to apply for a full-time position when she left school.

I loved the environment and became really interested in the machines and the process of how things are made​,” Clawson told Food Manufacture.

It got me a bit hooked and I haven't left since​.”

Starting out as a general production operative, Clawson was tasked with running the machinery and ensuring it was delivering the level of quality product that the firm deemed suitable. This involved taking on a lot of new information quickly, but Clawson was not overwhelmed and immersed herself in the role.

One of my biggest motivations is learning new skills​,” she explained.

I love keeping my brain active, it’s just how I tick​.”

From there, Clawson moved into a production administration role, before being promoted to a supervisor position. At each step of the ladder she continued to impress and by 2011 she had risen to the role of production manager.

I took some time off in 2014 to have my daughter, but since returning I have continued progressing​,” Clawson recalled.

Next I became head of manufacturing, gaining maintenance and hygiene as responsibilities, and in late 2018 I was named head of operations. This meant I gained responsibility for the warehouse and logistics fleet, and last year I was also given the added task of overseeing health and safety across the business.”

While Clawson has clearly achieved a lot since joining Sleaford Quality Foods, she credits the firm’s managing director James Arnold for believing in her and supporting her development.

He has been a great mentor and has really supported me along this journey​,” she said.

I have been able to develop expertise by attending management courses, and this helped me adapt my approach in certain areas and start to look at things slightly differently. I have a lot to thank him for, certainly.​”

In her role as head of operations, Clawson oversees a team of 70 people and a factory that produces 450 tonnes of output each week, which equates to around 35,000 cases. While this might sound an intimidating task to some, it is the relentless nature of the food sector that inspires Clawson when she arrives at the site each morning.

I think the food industry is really exciting and it’s clearly a really important one​,” she explained.

Food is a necessity for all of us and I find the fact that we are having such a large impact on people’s lives really rewarding. When I am in the supermarket or a restaurant and I see the products that we manufacture, it is really fantastic​.”

Clawson said that the everchanging nature of the food sector is another aspect that drives her: “It is always evolving and as a business we have to adapt to new trends and market conditions. Going through the pandemic for example, we had to adapt and cope with an entirely new set of circumstances.”

Over the course of an average month, the Sleaford Quality Foods factory produces about 400 different product SKUs which range from herbs and spices to fruit and vegetables, all the way to bakery ingredients.

“It certainly comes with its challenges, but I love that and given that we provide for the foodservice sector and the food manufacturing sector we have to be very versatile​,” Clawson said.

At the 2024 Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, held on 8 February in London, Clawson beat out an “extremely competitive​” field to win Factory Manager of the Year.

Reflecting on the decision to apply, she explained that it was her boss who initially wanted to put her forward for the award: “He approached me and explained why I should go for it and we came to a joint decision. The fact that he encouraged me was enough motivation to give it a go​.”

Clawson admits that she has not quite yet come to terms with the recognition, but believes that her experience performing every role within the factory was key to her success: “I understand every task and I have made sure I know how all the machines work or how every process needs to go.”

Despite this, hearing her name read out at the ceremony still came as a surprise: “I'm still really shocked in all honesty, but obviously extremely proud.

It does feel pretty fantastic to have that recognition, because most factory managers know that the role comes with some long hours and a lot of challenges​.”

Earning the award in the same year that she celebrates 25 years in the industry is certainly quite fitting for Clawson, but she insists that this recognition is largely the result of the people she works with on a daily basis.

People are the most important thing and I am a big believer in that​,” she added.

I always try and engage with the team and I really value their input. By engaging with them and empowering them, I show that I have trust in them and this turn helps them deliver at their best. Every day is a school day in my eyes and we are all learning from each other​. I couldn’t have even been nominated without the team we have – I am so proud of them​.”

To finish, Clawson offered some advice for the young people she manages that may one day want to become a factory manager, or those considering any kind of career within the food and drink industry.

If the passion is there, just do it. It is an exciting industry with so much to learn, however the rewards are huge so entering the industry is the best decision I ever made. It can be hard work at times and requires commitment but if you've got the drive and you've got your goals, you can achieve them.”

Learn more about the 2024 Food Manufacture Excellence Awards here​.

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