WoA Interview with Peter Haag

This article is the transcript from the interview with Peter Haag on March, 24. Peter is a food professional holding currently the position of Group VP Safety, Quality, Sustainability (SQS) in HKScan Corporation. Peter has spent almost 30 years in food industry always within the field of Quality, Environment and Safety. He has a family with 3 adult daughters and loves motorcycling, golf, music, cooking, skiing downhill, travelling and spending time at family summerhouse. His favorite slogan is “Have courage to fail – but never twice in the same area”.

Peter spent seven years in the world of auditing and it was inspiring to hear how this fit perfectly into his great career and aspirations.

World of Auditing: It has been quite a while. How many years now since we didn’t see each other, like maybe …

Peter Haag: Maybe 20 years.

World of Auditing: Oh my God, it is scary to see how years passed so fast. Very nice to see you again, Peter, and thanks very much for accepting the interview. I am confident that what we will be talking about in the next 40, 45 minutes would be an inspiration for many young auditors, as well as some experienced ones who are in the process of changing their job. Can you please tell me a little bit about your background? How did you move to auditing and what made you leave the auditing world and start working again for the industry?

Peter Haag: Yeah. So, to start with, I have a bachelor’s degree in food science. But as I always say, it does not count which university I have completed. I had gone through a rough school of business. So, I have learned throughout my career a lot.

I actually started my first full-time job in a food company producing snacks, salty snacks like potato crisps. And I started there as a laboratory manager. And then, I got a responsibility as quality manager, started developing the company’s quality management system, took responsibility for environment, and started building the environmental management system. That was back in 1995, if I am not mistaken.

I was based in the western part of Finland in a small city called Kristiinankaupunki. It is a tiny, tiny city by the sea. But there is a lot of potato farmers in that area. And potato was the main ingredient for the potato crisps, of course. So, it was natural that the factory was basically surrounded by potato fields and farmers. So that is where I started in total. I worked for that company for seven years. During the last two years, I had a position as the development manager because we wanted to expand the quality system more as a business management system covering all areas of the business, including sales and finance and then the top management. So, I would say it was a really nice school, the first step to the world of quality.

World of Auditing: Not only to quality but also to the environmental management, as I understand.

Peter Haag: I would say I worked the longest time for the quality management and the last part was where I managed both. Indeed, last year I also took the responsibility of safety management, but that I didn’t touch so deeply.

World of Auditing: Then what happened after seven years?

Peter Haag: Yeah, seven years in that company. We were using an external body of certification, and they knew me very well by then.  So I never say it’s luck. It was a coincidence. The moment when the certification body was looking for a lead auditor in the field of food from farm to the table, I got that position. I moved to Helsinki and took over that position, specialized in food manufacturing, food packaging, animal feed manufacturing, and such certifications and companies. I would say the certification body had the biggest Finnish food and beverage companies as customers. And that was actually the time I believe we met the first time. And that is how I started 2002 as an auditor.

I would say that working as a lead auditor was the best moment from the learning perspective because I really have to get a proper overview of different kind of businesses in a very short period of time and learn to report and capture what I have seen in a simple way of wording, in a very short executive summary and present that to the top management. I have to admit, in the beginning, I had quite some fear going to big companies without being the best expert, but I learned through this experience towards the standards. Throughout those seven years, I would say, I learned more and more also to support the companies, of course, as an auditor. We are not allowed to train them. We are not allowed to tell them what they have to do. But we can give ideas. We can share some learnings we have seen in other companies. And that is something that the customers value a lot. And they want to hear a lot about, kind of a benchmarking, without naming any companies, of course, but more kind of processes. How have these companies or similar companies solved this issue they are facing now?

World of Auditing: Sorry for the interruption Peter, you have already given some indications, but I would like to openly ask you the following question. What were the main challenges, and what were the main opportunities you have seen within the auditing functions?

Peter Haag: So I would say that the biggest challenges were mainly, well, let’s put it this way, most often mainly the small companies who just wanted to have the paper on the wall didn’t have really any interest to do better, just wanted to fulfill the minimum requirements. Unfortunately, that is a fact of auditing. So, visiting those companies might be a little bit boring sometimes. They did not even want to hear any best practices. They just wanted to have the paper. Fortunately, that is still a small part of the work. I would say the opportunity to the companies is that if an auditor starts sharing the learnings and knowledge during the audits, as I said earlier, you will gain a lot of knowledge in a very short period of time. And you need to learn to adapt to the standards as the requirements. You also need to adapt to a lot of different situations and sometimes surprising ones. This requires a lot of flexibility. So that is a huge opportunity to learn and develop for an auditor. I would say it was the starting point for my career, really giving me opportunities to grow and move forward.

World of Auditing: Very good. And the challenges and opportunities are hands in hands, right? So, you said seven years as an auditor. How many operations or manufacturing plants have you audited during that period?

Peter Haag: I think I counted at some point maybe between 100 and 150 roughly.

World of Auditing: And how many countries, any indication?

Peter Haag: Well, my job was quite focused on the Nordic countries. I had some customers in Austria, a couple of customers in even in Mexico, some in the States, but my focus was really within the Nordic countries. So maybe 15, 20 countries if I start counting all visits.

World of Auditing: Woavv. And you have a big family if I remember well.

Peter Haag: Yes, I have three daughters, all adult now and moved out from home.

World of Auditing: Going back to those years, when you were working as an auditor, they were smaller.

Peter Haag: Yes indeed, they were small. If we talk about challenges, quite often you are starting your work on a Monday morning, you are going to an unknown environment among people you do not know well, and you work with them throughout the week, and you get back home late Friday, and you may be quite exhausted, and then you have small kids. So, it really requires finding the balance. And actually, the positive side of audits is that when you close the audit, you do not have to carry the work with you home normally. So, it is kind of Monday to Friday. You do not have the burden like a normal business. When you work for industry, for example, you are carrying your work over the weekend, and even over your holidays. But with auditing, when you have free time, you have good free time. This improves the quality of the time spent with the family.

World of Auditing: So, you say, working as an auditor is a challenge throughout the week which becomes an opportunity for your free time, including weekends. And I think that is a good balance when you have a family with small children.

Peter Haag: There are pros and cons with all the jobs. And now, when I am working for the business, I have more time at home. But then again, the work is with me all the time.

World of Auditing: Yeah, I can imagine. So, seven years, 150 manufacturing operations, 15 to 20 different countries, and three small children. And a lot of joy within the seven years in auditing. What made you decide to move to the industry again?

Peter Haag: I do not know if it has something to do with my seven years cycle. It seems that my life is going through the traditional seven years cycle that I want to get a new challenge. It is part of my personality. I like challenges. And during those seven years, I started to feel like visiting a lot of the same companies again, again, again and again. It is great to see that they progress, and that is the positive feedback you get. You do not necessarily get it verbally, but you will observe that they are progressing. But I felt like that I had done enough. Finland is a small country. The business-people know each other. An in the food business, everyone knows everyone here. When I started having those thoughts to change, I was contacted by a multinational company. So they were looking for a quality manager responsible for the business unit, Nordic. And then I was very happy to take that opportunity because I had been auditing the company manufacturing plants in Nordic for three or four years. I knew everyone already. There again, it was kind of a natural step as I moved to auditing from my first job.

World of Auditing: Where were you based by then?

Peter Haag: All the time in Helsinki. And actually, I broke the seven-year cycle there. I worked nine and half years in that multinational company, which was, again, a huge experience. I would say it was one of the biggest and the boldest, and then the most beautiful experience. It was a company where you really need to keep running if you want to keep up with speed.

World of Auditing: How many manufacturing plants were you responsible for?

Peter Haag: I have to count; I think it was close to 10, about 10 in the beginning, yes.

World of Auditing: That would mean traveling too. Were you traveling as much as you did with your auditing?

Peter Haag: About the same. It has never changed, except now with Covid-19. I have always been traveling a lot, even with my first job. I was part of the Nordic business unit traveling in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. I was traveling all the Nordic countries, and with the new company, it was Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland.

World of Auditing: So, the frequency did not change, but the intensity change. Was it the same as for auditing? You said you were leaving home late Sunday evening and then coming back on Friday evening?

Peter Haag: I would say there were more possibilities to influence the private life and work-life balance because in the certification body when I was working as an auditor at that time, at least, there were assigned people who were booking your calendar, like six months ahead. So, you knew that your calendar is full for the next six months.

And you knew exactly where you are going. But working at a multinational food company and any other similar kind of business, particularly if you are holding a manager or director position, you have to manage your own calendar. I would say it was not “from Monday to Friday pressure.” It was more that you might be traveling from Tuesday to Wednesday or Tuesday to Thursday.

World of Auditing: You had worked for your first company for seven years, then you moved to auditing, and then you came back to business with a multinational company and stayed there for nine and a half years. Did anything change when you compare yourself with the young individual working for a snacking company for seven years and the person working for a multinational company? When you make a comparison, what do you see as the change? Or let me put it this way. What has your auditing career changed in terms of your management skills or the way you look at things?

Peter Haag: I think if I look back. To be honest, in my first company, I was young and inexperienced. I did not have managerial or some sort of leadership skills. I mean, I was coping with everyday business with my best skills I had. And those were quite limited at that time. Then when I perform audits, as I mentioned, one thing that increased a lot was social skills and managing communication with different people. You need to understand various kinds of people. And they are in different situations, in life, and in business. So, it’s quite a lot about, I would say, coping with people, being with people. It is really increased my social skills and also my language skills a lot. And I would say when I started working at a multinational company after auditing, I was much more balanced with myself, not being afraid of facing difficult situations, difficult people. I really learned a lot on how to help people understand what you want to say to them, what you want to tell them. Because when you are doing audits, as I said, you have very little time to capture the essence of what exactly is happening. And then you have to express that out in a very clear and compact way. And that is something that top management also appreciates a lot. So, if you have that skill, you will have the skills and appreciation from the top management as you know how to capture the essence. Despite the fact that I am an engineer and engineers love smallest possible details, that the details are not the things that top management wants to hear. They want to have a one-page summary. They do not have time. I can tell I do not have the time today to read 100 pages of reports. Now I understand why the top management always asked that from me when I was holding junior positions. I have to admit; in the beginning, I had difficulties understanding why. But now it is easy because I’m asking the same, please, can you capture the essence in one page.

World of Auditing: So, you clearly state that auditing sharpened your skills to understand what top management is looking for to evaluate the situation.

Peter Haag: Yes, this is one thing, but the skill set you develop is more about understanding a big amount of information. What does that mean as a complete picture for that company? How is that company really doing? It is not only looking at the last line of the profit and loss statement; it is a lot more. How are the people being treated? Are they feeling comfortable in the company? Are they treating nature well? I would say the process of thinking is probably the one statement that I really had to focus on. It was the time that also the standards started talking about the process approach back then.

World of Auditing: Yes, indeed, auditing requires a good level of business acumen. If you understand the business, it would be much easier for you to provide the information that the top management is looking for. And you are absolutely right. Auditing helps you to develop such skills.

Peter Haag: Yes indeed. And also, one more thing worth mentioning that it may sometimes feel very painful. During an audit, sometimes you have very little information, but you still need to understand what’s going on. Regardless of a limited amount of information or you have a lot of information, you still know that it’s not everything. And you still need to make some kind of conclusion. Auditing, in that sense, help you develop confidence too.

World of Auditing: Yeah, that is very good. OK, Peter, nine and a half years in a multinational company as regional quality manager. Then what happened?

Peter Haag: There’s a very simple answer to that. Because I wanted forward in my career, and the only opportunity would have been to move out from Finland. And I started to reach my 50’s and started thinking that do I have the interest? I had the courage, but have I got the interest at this age to move out? And I basically, due to my personal reasons, personal life, made the decision. No, I did not want to move out of Finland and started looking around, and I was contacted actually by a headhunter, and they were asking if I would be interested in starting in the position of head of safety. And I thought that if I start in a position of head of safety, then in the future, it does not matter if it is for the food industry or if it is electronics or if it is the car industry, safety is safety. So, thinking of the wider perspective, I might have better opportunities to move sideways in different kinds of businesses. I have always been in the food industry. Then I started in June 2018 as head of safety. It was a difficult time as the company had some financial and managerial challenges to overcome. Many changes followed, including the top management. So, it has been quite turbulent times. But sometimes, people need to realize that if you survive through turbulence, you will have opportunities.

From January 2020, I took additional responsibility for quality and environment. And just recently, about three weeks ago, I took responsibility also for the Corporate responsibility function in the group. We have 17 factories in five different countries, seven thousand two hundred workers.

World of Auditing: Yeah, very good. Do you have your internal auditors in your company? Are you performing internal audits, or do you only get services from the external providers in terms of auditing?

Peter Haag: We have internal auditors in the countries which we call the business units in each country. We have local internal auditors. What I can say that we are still in a journey of building the governance model, which I am actually in charge of, and I’m just modifying the corporate responsibility governance model.

World of Auditing: Yeah, it must be exciting at the same time, isn’t it the beginning of a new era?  When you compare the external auditors and the internal auditors. What strengths and weaknesses do you see within those? I think that they both have pros and cons.

Peter Haag: Yes, they have. They really have. If I start from the external auditors, the first challenge is that, especially if you have a new auditor, it takes a while before they start performing. In the beginning, they are lost the same way as I was lost in the beginning. You need to be investing in people before expecting to get a result.

Regarding the positive sides, coming in with external eyes is very good so that they are not hooked with the old styles and old ways of working that companies use to.  So, they can bring in good ideas and open people’s minds, help them think in a different way. Well, and I think I always say that half of all the time spent during an audit should go-to guide or show the good practices while making sure that they follow the requirements. So, it is kind of a balance. And then it is better value for the money as you pay for the audits. An auditor should always remember to look for the evidence and not just rely on procedures and answers. One other benefit of external audits is the pressure they create in a positive manner. There are circumstances where the top management does not realize the importance, or they may struggle to prioritize some of the investments. So, if you get that in the audit report written, then it’s easier to push. So, I would say you can also use the audits and auditors as messengers. I have used auditors several times if I wanted to get something through.

World of Auditing: That is a very wise way of looking at audits and the value it brings.

Peter Haag: So, it is not at the end of the day having a paper on the wall, but it is really for improving your management system. And then basically, I mean, why on earth would you want to have the audits if it is only because some customer wants to have the certificate? That is, of course, one reason for some companies. But I believe that if you have audits, you need to make sure they find issues. You may even show them a little bit of direction because we should not be afraid to be audited. And if auditors find flaws in our systems, I think it only serves the purpose of improving. If you hide them, then you will have only more trouble with your own work.

World of Auditing: Then with the internal auditors?

Peter Haag: With the internal auditors, they know. They know the system, they know the processes, they know the people, they know the ways of working, that’s a big plus. But then again, they are from the same company. They may not have the same power. So depending on the company, depending on the system, and how they build a governance model, how they build the internal audit processes, they can build a strong system. It is more difficult to really start putting things on a paper if your “good friend” is having trouble or is not filling all the documents they should, and you start writing a nonconformity about it. So that is, of course, the challenge of internal auditors, staying unbiased. But you need to build a system so they can work independently.

World of Auditing: That independence is key for governance. They need to be bold enough to tell what is going wrong; otherwise, the whole process will be compromised. All right, Peter. Imagine that you met a person who is at his young age, like 26, 28, having a couple of years in the industry; what would you recommend if he/she is willing to move to the world of auditing or vice versa?

Peter Haag: I would say the first thing is to have courage. People are afraid of taking the step quite often, but it is really about courage. I mean, what can you lose in the end? And you will not be successful every day. But I think everyone should learn that by making mistakes we can improve. If we would be perfect every day, then we would never improve it. We would be just lazy and happy. I think we should have the courage to fail now and then, not miserably fail, but fail so that we can learn and not be afraid of that. Of course, the culture and environment should be supporting learning from failure. And I think more and more companies are understanding that because that is bringing the strength out of people. And then people have the courage to come forward with ideas and thoughts. And if we are not only expecting the perfect answer all the time. When I think of myself and the age when I started as an auditor, in the beginning, it was a horrifying experience that you go to a completely unknown environment; the first year, I would say it was almost every day was the unknown environment. It is exhausting. But then again, if you do it at that age, you have the power. Start that kind of work today; I do not think if I would have the energy anymore to learn so many new things every day. I remember one of the best experiences I had. It was when I was asked to go to a country in Africa to benchmark audits. And without thinking, I said yes. And you might guess how much I knew about that country. I went there. I have such memories from those two weeks that I will never forget. A few are a little bit scary, maybe, but in the end, I went back home with such a great experience. I remember how lovely the people, the local people were, that they were so great working with.

World of Auditing: I’ve been to many parts of Africa several times, and I had the same feeling. One last question before we close the interview. Peter, when you go back to your auditing years, what was the biggest learning you had? Do you have any mistakes that you learned the most within the seven years you worked as an auditor?

Peter Haag: It is a little bit related to the thing I said earlier, if you are afraid of making mistakes, you are trying basically too hard. And it is like in sports if you are pushing too hard, you may fail miserably. It must be a kind of relaxed but still focused way of working. It is easy to say. I know it is not something that you would just switch your brain and start doing that, but you will learn through the years that you do the work. It is basically learning every day. I would say the biggest mistake was exactly that. I thought that being an auditor, you need to know everything about everything, and you need to be exactly right on everything you are saying. Then it gets quite exhausting.

World of Auditing: You need to give yourself some time to get to that point. You are absolutely right. Peter, thank you so much. It was wonderful to hear the stories that you had throughout your career. I truly believe that your story will be an inspiration to many other auditors out there. Thanks very much for accepting the interview with World of Auditing. Delighted to have you here. And I wish you all the best with your new role.

Peter Haag: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. And I really hope this will give some good insight to some young new auditors who are seeking to start. Don’t be afraid.

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