Headshot Courtest of The Wendy’s Co.

There’s a bit of a pattern to Liliana Esposito’s career path stretching back to her first job in high school.

“I worked on a vegetable farm,” she said. “Then my second job was waiting tables. And my third job was waiting tables. I love the food business.”

Although her first career-type job was in consulting across several sectors, she found her way back to food after a few years, taking a position in public affairs at Mars, Inc. She followed that up serving as senior director of public affairs and vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Dean Foods before joining Wendy’s Co. in 2014.

She said the common thread across all three companies is, of course, food, but each stop has also been a way to see the industry from a different point of view. Mars is a consumer packaged goods company, Dean Foods handles fresh dairy and Wendy’s represents the restaurant side of things.

“Not that I designed [my career] that way, but the role those companies play in the industry is different,” she said. “In a consumer packaged goods environment, we looked at things generally quarterly and maybe even annually. In fresh dairy, I thought, Wow, I’m getting my sales flash reports on a weekly basis. This is pretty fast. Well, we’re looking at sales every day at Wendy’s — sometimes twice a day. None of those models are right or wrong, or better or worse. They’re just appropriate for the business that they’re in.”

Esposito, whose role at Wendy’s includes leading communications, government affairs and quality assurance, shares the lessons she’s learned about food safety, quality, social responsibility and more.

Food is something that’s so personal. Every single person engages with the food industry in some fashion.

It’s very easy to get passionate about it because it is literally essential to survival.

And yet, it’s so complex. There’s so much to it.

We had a board meeting the week before my first day at Wendy’s. The CEO said it would be a shame for me to miss it. My first day was before I was an actual employee.

It took me about half the meeting to figure out … but we don’t have a sales organization here. I had to reset my brain. Our sales organization are people that work in the restaurants and hand our customers their food.

We’re not selling to Wal-Mart. We’re selling direct to a customer. It really does change the way you think about what you’re delivering and who your ultimate customer is.

Probably the biggest thing I took away from my consulting job was that you have to be in charge of your own development. You have to take that on your own.

Mars was where I learned the importance of quality. It ingrained in me how important that was and to not take quality for granted. That organization has some of the most iconic brands in the world — M&Ms, Snickers — but they only got that way and have stayed that way because of the investment and commitment in quality.

Dean was really my introduction to the difference in velocity that businesses have and the importance of understanding how the organization that you work for makes money, how it succeeds, how it fails and how different that is.

Corporate responsibility, more than even food, is the connective tissue between every job I’ve had.

I remember as a very young professional thinking, You would think one of these days investors would care about this. Other than for extreme examples of negative corporate responsibility, it wasn’t really something that was part of a company’s valuation.

I thought, Will this be a negative for companies if they aren’t really making the world a better place to be?

That time is now. You can see the studies that demonstrate that companies that invest in these areas are performing better across environmental, social and governance categories.

Communicating about food safety and quality is about understanding the importance of the why. It’s the idea of creating a food safety culture. Not just a food safety program. Not just best practices.

You can tell somebody, “Hey, you have to wash your hands in this fashion for this amount of time at this sink using this soap.” But if you explain the why to that person, and if they can really internalize that they’re doing it to keep somebody else safe, you go beyond compliance to buy-in.