An Interview with Tony Montana, PhD, 2008 ALMA Distinguished Service Award Winner
The Association of Lab Managers (ALMA), an organization that provides assistance with the management aspect of running a laboratory, has been in existence for 30 years.
Each year, ALMA hosts a conference where lab managers get together and discuss common problems and potential solutions. The board also grants a Distinguished Service Award for Laboratory Management to a manager whose skills in running a lab are considered outstanding.
This year, the honor goes to Tony Montana, the vice president of scientific operations at Garden State Nutritionals, a custom manufacturer of nutritional supplements in Fairfield, New Jersey.
“I’ve been a member of ALMA for over 20 years,” Montana says. “I’m a past president. I’ve been involved with running the conference and have taught short courses.”
“I’ve been very active because I find [ALMA] very valuable to me.”
Montana was brought into management after working as a chemist for only six months. When his manager was moved into another position, Montana’s bosses thought that he had the right organizational and communication skills to run the lab.
But Montana had little management training and background.
“I had to learn very fast and be very effective at it, so I did a lot of studying, got an MBA degree and read all the management books,” Montana explains.
“But it wasn’t until I got involved with ALMA that I started to get more information about the practical side of lab management.”
Montana oversees 19 full-time chemists and is responsible for all the testing required to formulate, develop and manufacture custom dietary supplements. His team tests about 800 batches of product each month.
“The other responsibility I have is [being] the technical voice for the business,” Montana says. “So, throughout the day I get many phone calls from our customers—the people using the products that have a certain concern—and my job is to supply them with technical information.”
Garden State Nutritionals has more than 700 employees. Montana works hard to incorporate his lab—a small yet valuable part of the business—into the day-to-day company operations. He believes it’s important to communicate the contributions of his division to those outside.
“If you run the lab like a separate island outside the company, you will not be able to demonstrate where the laboratory is adding value to the overall business,” he says.
Teamwork, according to Montana, is essentially the most important trick of the trade, not just within the company but also within the lab.
It’s great to have skilled people in the lab, people who are good workers, but they still need to work as a group, he explains. “There’s a lot of synergy when people work together rather than working independently.”
Another key to good management is establishing a one-on-one dialogue with each employee.
“The laboratory today is very multicultural, so you’ve got to take a personal interest in each individual,” Montana says.
“If they’re comfortable in dealing with you and working with you, they’ll feel more comfortable in the lab [and] work more effectively.”
Montana manages both the operating and the capital budgets for his division. The operating budget is primarily a daily expense budget that includes the cost of running the lab, purchasing consumables and lab supplies, and payroll.
The capital budget is for longer-term needs such as laboratory equipment and expansion. How Montana and his colleagues adjust their budget needs is connected to the overall economy.
“Certainly in this current environment, we need to keep our cost down and to ensure that if we’re making a capital purchase, we justify that need,” Montana explains.
“We need to make sure that we buy the right instrument at the right price and use it very efficiently and effectively.”
Fortunately for Garden State Nutritionals, customers take nutritional products on a regular basis, so Montana hasn’t yet noticed a sudden downturn in sales. But as with other goods, people who buy these products are going to seriously reconsider their needs, he says. “So in the longer run, an economy like this affects us as well.”
Montana’s lab experiences a 10 percent turnover in employees each year. Whether it’s a replacement position or a new position, the management staff must justify the need for additional people.
Often, replacement positions are filled quickly, but it’s more difficult to rationalize adding another person to the group. Once a new position is approved, management searches for the right person through word of mouth, a recruiter or an ad in the local newspaper.
“The most important thing is that we try to find the best person we can for the position,” Montana says.
“Once we get a good person on board, we get them the resources—any training or support—they need to do the job and then leave them on their own and not over-manage or micro-manage that person.”
The Food and Drug Administration has recently issued Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) for nutritional supplement products, tightening the regulations for this industry.
This industry is now being looked at more like an over the-counter drug product industry than strictly a food supplement industry, Montana explains.
“So we make these products like we’re making an actual drug product to sell to the customer.”
The additional testing of the raw materials and the finished product, along with requirements for documentation, have slowed down Montana’s lab. But the extra effort ensures better results slightly.
“It does lengthen the time to make a product, but the assurance is that now you’re making more of a quality product by following these regulatory requirements,” he says.
Montana admits that while the work is demanding, his days are filled with diversity and technical excitement.
“Every day is different, [because] we make different products every day,” he explains.
“Sometimes it puts more pressure on you, but it makes the day a lot more fun from a technical perspective.”
The other aspect of work that Montana enjoys is watching the growth of his employees. “You see their daily contribution and accomplishments and as they move up the ladder. It’s very gratifying that as a manager you had a part in their success.”