Analytical Food Laboratories (AFL) in Grand Prairie, Texas, has come a long way since it was started in 1992 by president/ CEO Rebecca Pfundheller.
Back then it was a small, low-cost business, with her husband, who is a teacher, helping pick up samples in the summer. Now the company, which does third-party testing for the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and nutraceutical industries, runs two shifts of more than 60 employees and operates seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“I was managing a lab that was acquired by a national laboratory, and my clients came to me and said, ‘Go do this on your own; we’ll follow you,’” Pfundheller said of how she decided to start her own testing business. “So I bit the bullet and went out there and started up a very low-cost, Cinderella-type story.”
In those early days, Pfundheller used space from a former employer who was in the cosmetic industry, paying low rent in exchange for doing free testing for him. Currently, the company operates out of a 12,000-square-foot space and is in the process of moving to a 25,000-square-foot facility.
“We started off with food—food microbiology was our mainstay,” Pfundheller said of how the business has grown. “We’ve expanded into chemistry and also product quality and USP [United States Pharmacopeia] testing. We have a full-service chemistry laboratory right now that does all types of chemistry analyses.”
The ISO 17025-certified laboratory now has five different departments: microbiology (which also does research), USP microbiology, analytical chemistry, wet chemistry, and a department focused on the restaurant and food service/hospitality industries.
The restaurant department, Pfundheller explained, does “vendor product evaluation testing to make sure that what the restaurants are purchasing under their purchasing contracts is actually what the supplier is providing them in terms of physical attributes: weights, thicknesses, and lengths and fat content and diameters.”
Pfundheller’s duties as president/ CEO of the company go beyond just running the company, including everything from sales and marketing tasks to working with clients.
“My duties now are pretty much the strategic planning, the operational side, making sure the company is running and that we’re profitable and moving forward,” she said. “I deal a lot with clients too—I do a lot of trade shows and client visits.”
Other senior management staff working with Pfundheller include an executive vice president, who’s also involved in strategic planning; the senior director of operations, who oversees the various lab departments; a director of administration; and a senior director of analytical research.
While managing the company as a whole takes up most of her time, Pfundheller, who has her degree in microbiology, does get back into the lab often to check up on her employees and make sure they are OK.
“We have a very family-oriented business,” added Pfundheller, who has thirteen-year-old triplets with her husband. “One of my really big beliefs is that people are at work more than they are at home and they work very hard, so I want them to have a lot of fun when they’re doing it. We have a very comfortable environment around here.”
The technicians and other AFL staff have biology, microbiology, chemistry, or biochemistry degrees; some have master’s degrees, and the director of research has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. As in most labs, there is also a training program that they must complete once they start at AFL.
“Depending on which department they’re going to be working in, they have specific training that they have to go through and check off before they can start performing any of the individual tests by themselves,” Pfundheller explained. “They’ll shadow people and make sure that they’re running samples right, and then once they’re all approved and they’ve passed the training, they can go and start doing the analyses on their own.”
AFL also helps give students realworld experience in the lab through partnerships with two nearby universities that offer food science degrees.
“We have a lot of part-time technicians who come in to gain some experience as they’re still going to school, which I think is extremely valuable for them to do,” Pfundheller said of the programs.
Aside from a flexible environment that allows employees to step out for appointments during work hours, giving employees ownership of their work is another way AFL motivates its staff.
“We’re always improving and updating the flow and the conditions to make them more acceptable so the technicians get the most out of what they’re doing,” Pfundheller said. “We keep very open communication. It’s a very open-door policy. If they have any questions, they’re welcome to come right to me to get answers,so there’s not a stringent hierarchy.”
She adds that AFL also shares how the company is doing with its workers to keep them in the loop.
“We share the vision of the company, we share where the company is going, we share with them what they can do and any challenges that are coming up and what we foresee,” Pfundheller explained. “We’re just very open and honest.”
An employee appreciation award— the Lab Rat Award—which is decided through a staff vote, rewards particularly hardworking employees every quarter with a plush rat to keep things fun.
“We’re always trying to do those types of employee appreciation things and events,” Pfundheller said.
Talk about high throughput
In a very high-throughput laboratory, that employee motivation is critical, as AFL deals with around 6,000 samples and about 200 clients each month, meaning days in the lab are very busy, with the first workers getting in at 6:00 a.m. and the last leaving at midnight. Samples come in constantly, with AFL’s four couriers traveling around the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex all day, dropping off samples starting at 8:00 a.m. and finishing at around 8:00 p.m.
“Any microbiology work that comes in that day gets tested the same day, so there’s no lag at all on the turnaround time for microbiology,” Pfundheller said. “There are constantly people around here working, and even on the weekends we have couriers who go around Saturday and Sunday and pick up samples all the time.”
However, those hours sometimes run even later if a client needs samples picked up past 8:00 p.m. “If a client is running a second shift and they have samples that need to be picked up at 9:00 p.m.—because that’s when their shift is done—we’ll be there to pick them up; we won’t require them to wait until the next morning,” she said. “We know how important it is for them to get those test results so they can ship their product and get it out in the market.”
Once those samples are received at AFL, they are logged into the lab’s Accelerated Technology Laboratories Sample Master LIMS, which Pfundheller says they’ve been very pleased with.
“It’s a new program we got a couple years ago, and it has automated a lot of stuff that we’ve been doing, and it’s been a great product for us,” she said of the LIMS.
Once the samples are in the system, the testing begins. For the microbiology department in particular, the results are released either in the morning or afternoon, depending on the time frame they are working in.
With all that activity plus phones ringing with client calls for new requests, testing results, or sample pickups all day long, things sound pretty chaotic at AFL, but Pfundheller says her staff is what keeps everything running smoothly.
“You’ve just got a large group of people working in unison to keep everything flowing,” she says, to explain how it all stays organized.
Technology and the government
With such a heavy workload, technology also plays a key role in AFL’s operations and has made things much easier on the lab’s technicians.
“We used to do everything manually, and we’re getting more and more automated in both the microbiology and the chemistry areas,” Pfundheller said. “For instance, in the microbiology department we have a bio- Mérieux TEMPO reader, and we use it for anaerobic plate count and coliform and yeast and mold. That has helped take some technician time off that and automate those processes.”
In the chemistry department, equipment such as autosamplers and autotitrators are also helping make things easier on staff, but Pfundheller said her most important piece of equipment is probably the AB Sciex 4000 QTRAP LC-MS the company recently purchased.
“We are using it for sunscreens, a lot of the OTC [over-the-counter] drugs, vitamin assays, fat-soluble vitamin assays, pesticides—things that are going to be very important in our growth for the future and for what we’re currently doing. So I would say that’s the most important piece that we have right now.”
She adds the company is constantly updating its equipment, and the biggest challenge with technology is just getting it up and running and making it part of the regular work routine. Careful planning and meetings are important to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
“It’s a lot of communicating and getting everyone on board and staying on top of it and updating to make sure that everything is progressing,” Pfundheller said.
Other challenges AFL faces include changing government regulations, some of which don’t always have definite implementation dates. One recent regulation is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirement to have restaurant menus include calorie counts.
“We’re geared up to do that type of testing with a lot of the restaurant groups, and now they’ve put it on hold because FDA hasn’t said, ‘Here’s an implementation date,’ because they just haven’t made up their mind yet,” Pfundheller said. “So once they do set that date, it’ll be a big rush for a lot of these restaurant groups to get this done. Those are some of the challenges of working with the government. They’re not quick on their feet.”
Moving to a new space has also presented some challenges.
“We’re not like an office building where you can just say, ‘OK, Friday we’re shutting down, we’re moving on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday we open up in the new building,’” she explained. “Because we work seven days a week and we work basically 18 hours a day or so, there’s someone always here and someone always going, so strategically putting that in place—what’s going to happen next, what needs to be moved— that type of stuff is fun.”
Pfundheller is quick to add there are many more benefits than difficulties to her job.
“One of my favorite parts is working with the employees and seeing them grow and helping them,” she said. “I like to help their growth and their motivation because, in turn, they help the company and everything, so it gives back tremendously.”
She added that working with clients is also a big plus.
“Our clients are family to us. We get good feedback from them; that’s important to me,” Pfundheller said. “I’m very personally involved with everyone. The majority of my staff and managers have been here [for some time]; I think eight years is the lowest on the manager side up through 12 to 13 years, so I have very good longevity of staff, which helps a lot with knowing the business and seeing the vision of the business. I’m very proud of that.”