Gavin Kibble MBE (Class of 1981)

After a career in the private sector, Gavin Kibble (Class of 1981) founded the Coventry Foodbank in 2011 and has gone on to launch and run many other initiatives supporting the vulnerable and disadvantaged in the city. The foodbank has now served over 220,000 meals. Gavin is also the Projects Director for the humanitarian aid charity Feed The Hungry. Gavin was awarded the MBE for services to the City of Coventry in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2021. He has been married to Vivienne for 35 years and has three children and one grandchild.

The first half of your career was in the private sector - then you set up a food bank. What was the moment when you decided to change path?

I was on a fairly standard career path. I studied Chemistry at Leeds University and succeeded in getting a graduate placement at a car manufacturer in Coventry. From there I went on work as a professional accountant across many different industries. By the time I turned 30 I was on the board of a small business in Coventry. By 40 I was the director of a multinational forklift truck company based in the UK. There was nothing unusual about any of this and I thought that was the way things were going to carry on.

But then in 2008, my brother got into debt and he asked me (being an accountant)  what he could do about it (he’s quite happy with me telling the story). I’m not an insolvency practitioner but I knew enough to start looking into it. When I told people what I was looking into, three people at my church independently suggested I should become a debt counsellor!

I’m a Christian and when that happens you kind of think God is trying to tell you something! In a conversation with a close friend of mine, he talked about legacy; about what you are remembered for and how you impact the world around you; neither of which had anything to do with possessions or money. It was quite releasing. It felt like I would be moving from earning for earning’s sake to doing something that was significantly more important.

It took me a year to serve my notice but by late-2010 we had started Coventry foodbank. It rapidly became one of the largest food banks in the country. It just exploded. This little charity became an integral part of the city’s welfare infrastructure. So much so that this year alone [2022], we will provide food sufficient to provide three-day meal packs to 30,000 people.

Once the food bank was running, I started a winter night shelter and ‘Good Neighbours’, a project to support vulnerable isolated older people and a whole new skillset came into play for me. It was as if the first half of my career had been training for this new purpose.  I now earn maybe a sixth of what I earned 12 years ago but I love going to work every day.      

Last year Feed the Hungry/ Coventry foodbank turned over just over £2m across our different projects. As well as supporting a large number of people in Coventry going through seasons of crisis, we now have an international reach into 28 countries – including, for example, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Burkina Faso and Liberia.

Are you evangelical about making that kind of career change towards something socially useful? Do you think more people should consider doing it?
No. I don’t think it's for everybody, to be honest. I think you need to have that personal epiphany or revelation. From that first decision to leave work I really did journey into most of this by accident or being in the right place at the right time. And I’m not alone in this: As an example, some years ago one of my Project Managers lost his house after a business failure.

Needing the support of the food bank, he decided to volunteer with us – but, with his passion for what we do, it was obvious he had a much bigger role to play. That’s why he has worked for us for the last seven years. He couldn’t have foreseen the circumstances that led him to this, and we couldn’t have achieved all we have without him.

Are food banks a safety net in a system that works well - or does their existence imply that our whole system doesn’t work?
Well, let me ask you: had you heard of food banks before the 2008 financial crash? They are the consequence more often than not of government policy or economic crisis (as currently) - for instance, the move from individual benefits to Universal Credit was not smooth and led to massive spikes in demand for us.

It comes down to whether you think the welfare state should provide enough for people to live on. I think it should - but it’s not currently meeting those requirements. One of the consequences is that food banks have to step into the gap. The UK is the fifth wealthiest country in the world, according to the IMF, so what are we doing wrong that many people don’t have enough money to buy food and heat their homes? We never used to see pensioners coming through food banks - we do now!

But I’d rather work with politicians and local councillors rather than alienate them with demands to do this or that. For many years we have worked with Coventry City Council to find solutions. I would prefer to try and ensure that the situations that give rise to poverty are addressed together.

Could you shut up shop if the state got it right?
Everyone can say that the government should spend more on public services. But how is that paid for? Where do you spend less, who do you tax more, or do you, perhaps, choose to borrow and push the problem down the road? Let’s think differently: for us, it's about working in a smarter way with the food industry. The problem is the way we manage food surplus is still very parochial and localised at the moment.

That’s not how it works in America. Feeding America works at a national scale and are heavily supported by central government with food assistance programmes. We are looking at what we can learn from the American model to make our operation more efficient. If I were in government, I would be looking at how to develop those systems to use food that would otherwise go to waste - to view food waste (especially by corporate manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers) in the same way that we now view smoking in a public space. I gave a Ted Talk around this and one of the ideas was that the value and quantity of disposed food should, by law, be accounted for and described in accounts of primary businesses in the food industry.

Are there sections of society who have never had a chance within our current economic system?
Well, it is true that individuals and families in the 10 per cent most deprived areas of the city place the greatest demand on food banks. That’s what we might expect but we do meet people from all walks of life. People who have had jobs, good jobs. We have set up food banks in less deprived areas of the city and they are still well used. It is often said that many people are only one pay packet away from needing a food bank.

How did your time at City shape you?
There was a very strong work ethic. I was very driven, maybe too much so, and I carried that ethic into my career. But the other thing at City was the huge opportunities we had - particularly in the areas I was passionate about. I enjoyed rowing at Putney (mostly because I hated playing rugby at Grove Park) but I most excelled in music: I was a chorister with the Chapel Royal for five years, and a member of various orchestras and choirs. CLS had such a good vibe and  you could end up exhausted doing all this stuff, but good exhausted. I don’t look back with any regret on my school days. Apart from rugby, I loved every part of it all the way through from starting aged nine to leaving at 17!

How did you come to go to City?
I was only going to get there with a scholarship. A friend of my parents suggested I audition for a choral scholarship with the Chapel Royal choir and that was the route I followed. With practices four nights a week, Sundays at St James' Palace and other extra-curricular activities, I was busy seven days a week.

What were your best subjects at school?
Chemistry and Geography. Which was a shame because in those days you couldn’t do them both together at A level. I decided to study Maths, Physics and Chemistry – although I had no liking for Physics.

Who were your best teachers
Jim Allman [CLS 1974 – 2010], a profoundly inspirational mathematics teacher, had the courage to invite me on an activity holiday in Lymington when I was 14. And that’s where I became a Christian - which was life-changing for me. It has directed a lot of what I’ve done including the work I currently do with Feed the Hungry, how I relate to other people and what my values are.

How did it happen?
This was a very typical activity holiday in the New Forest mixed in with evening meetings about what it meant to be Christian. Becoming a Christian wasn’t really a ‘Hallelujah’ moment rather a logic step that went something like this: ‘If I become a Christian and there is no God, I’m no worse off than where I am at the moment. So I can’t lose by doing this!’ But the reality is that the Gospel message is true, and my relationship with God has defined my life and purpose.

What was your first experience of work?
I did some work during the summer breaks at University, when I was 18. I went to work in a warehouse where they were putting together packs of sports clothes to go out to shops. That was quite good: I tried to speed up the process there and made a lot of enemies in the process! I, rather arrogantly, wanted to prove that things could be done more efficiently...

Roughly the same sort of thing you’re doing now...
Yes, but I lacked tact and diplomacy at that point! I was convinced their system was ridiculous which, as you might imagine, didn’t go down too well! After I graduated, I got a job at [car manufacturer] Cowley British Leyland – there was a strike on at the time and on my very first day as a graduate trainee I had to suffer all the name-calling involved in crossing a picket line!

What have you learned from your career that you would pass on to a 16-year-old?
‘Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy doing it’. There’s no point in getting out of bed on a Monday if you’re going to do something you don’t enjoy doing. I think everybody, Christian or not, knows deep down that there is a reason they are here - a purpose to their life. And once you know what that is, then follow it. That’s my thing: it’s not about chasing possessions or money - you can't take it with you. Have enough money to be comfortable, yes. But thereafter make the most of the time you have on this planet.

I’m not saying it’s easy - the pressures of the world and the costs, especially, of living in London do mean finance and work can consume us. I’ve seen it happen too often with friends and colleagues who have put their heads down and worked until they were 65; they became so busy they didn’t have time to do the things they were passionate about. There is a sweet spot: if you can do something you are passionate about and earn enough to live on - isn’t that the best place to be?

There’s a good article on the Guardian website entitled ‘Top 5 Regrets of the Dying’ [written by Susie Steiner on 1/2/2012]. The ‘I wish I had’ statements at the end of your life. The first of these is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”. Follow the things that you are passionate about, and don’t have unfulfilled dreams.  Just make sure you make the most of the one life you have.

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