Top New Talent 2016 winner Gibbon-Walsh talks about his rise through the ranks at FareShare UK, his background building submarines in the French Navy, and why he thinks we all need to be adaptable to get ahead in our careers
When Kris Gibbon-Walsh left his job designing submarines for the French navy in 2013, he couldn’t see himself ending up in the corporate sector. In fact, he drew up a list of potential new careers. It included teaching, academia and retraining as a medical doctor. Joining a towering corporate giant like Tesco wasn’t even close to making the cut.
Five years on though that perspective has changed. Dramatically. Gibbon-Walsh even names Tesco CEO Dave Lewis among his business idols (“he seems incredibly impressive”) and says “I could totally see myself in that sector. It doesn’t worry me at all, you can do good from anywhere. In fact, the head of CSR at Tesco can do way more good than I can. There’s good people everywhere.”
What’s fascinating is that he reached this new perspective through five years spent working in the not-for-profit sector, more often pitched in direct conflict with corporates and capitalism than in collaboration. But this is what makes working at FareShare UK so different, insists Gibbon-Walsh, now head of network partnerships at the redistribution charity.
From day one he says he was working side by side with industry. In the first instance, as an intern. “It was weird,” he laughs. “Weird, but good. I had zero responsibility and nobody knew my background as I didn’t tell anyone.” Instead, he worked quietly on the admin surrounding the annual Tesco food collection until an internal job came up and he – and his decorated CV – were put in front of CEO Lindsay Boswell. “Lindsay saw my CV and said ‘look, we’re going to find a way to utilise you a bit better’. From then he was put into a ‘special projects’ role, the first of which was helping Tesco come up with a solution for its store-level food waste. That meant working closely with its “amazing” project manager, a relationship that saw them come up with the highly successful FareShare Go project, partnering Tesco with tech from Irish startup Food Cloud.
How aware was he of food waste before joining FareShare, I ask. “I grew up in a really poor Liverpool working class household. We always had to finish our dinner. But I wasn’t especially aware of food waste. Poverty more than food waste.
Name: Kris Gibbon-Walsh
TNT class of: 2016
Potted CV: Masters and degree in Chemistry at Sheffield University before a year spent volunteering at orphanages in Romania and some time in Paris playing music. A PhD in environmental engineering with Liverpool University, a big chunk of which was spent in Calcutta, India. Then moved to France, where ended up working with the Royal Navy. Then joined FareShare as an intern in 2013. Now head of network partnerships.
Did you like working abroad? It’s awful. It depends what sort of person you are but for me, I’m about relationships and it’s quite isolated.
Career peak: I ran FareShare’s most recent national conference. It was aimed at getting everyone bought into one way of doing things, and embracing and utilising difference and diversity to bring the potential of what FareShare should be to a reality. That’s something I’m really proud of.
What’s been your biggest learning curve? Especially in my early career I had no confidence in my abilities. I did well in school but I came from a background where I wasn’t meant to do well, or at least I didn’t feel like I was, so I was very wary of forging my own path and self-conscious about it. I thought I was a bit shit really.
Was there a moment where that changed? You know what, I still feel like that sometimes. But you start to realise maybe nobody is that good, maybe everyone is winging it. I think that was my learning. Rather than I was better than I thought I was, it’s that nobody is as good as they pretend to be.
Business idol? From afar I have a lot of time for Dave Lewis. I appreciate his ethics. Not only is he a brilliant businessman but I appreciate the fact that despite running the biggest organisation in the country he decides these things are non-negotiables. He didn’t have to do that to be successful, but he did.
Best piece of advice? Do what you love but be flexible.
Hobbies: I play guitar, and used to play in a band. I play a lot of football and have a second black belt in Jujitsu.
Any good books you’d recommend? My favourite book recently was about String Theory. It was totally fascinating and translated to work too as while I was reading it, it constantly made me re-evaluate reality. Just because you think you know something doesn’t mean that’s how it really is.
Finally, what would your death row meal be? Dim sum.
“I think the biggest shock is the quality. If you see the quality of the food from the supply chain, the manufacturers, distribution centres and farms, it’s incredible. It’s better than you’d be able to buy in the supermarket as it’s come to us directly before it would even reach the supermarket shelf.”
Has the public got to grips with that yet? “No. Even when Tesco published its data and said less than 1% of food waste comes from retail, that’s still what we associate with food surplus. And we associate that 1% with 24-hour date life, mainly bakery, some produce. We don’t associate it with a month-in-date prime steak that is sat in a warehouse because it’s got the wrong colour on the packet, or the allergen labelling isn’t quite right.”
Scapegoating the supermarkets is done too often and won’t work, he believes. “Every time you read a paper you see Tesco’s name somewhere and it’s seldom positive. But if you know what they’re doing, especially since Dave Lewis took over, they’re genuinely working toward something really positive. That’s the same with many of the retailers.”
Again, it’s a view borne from proximity to the corporate sector. It’s a good thing, Gibbon-Walsh insists. “We’re held to the fire, in the right way, by other corporates, which allows us to see what the good bits are.” Asda, for instance, recently committed to £12.7m in donations to FareShare over the next three years, allowing it to double infrastructure across its network, as well as pay for 42 vans and drivers. But it will also “help us learn from the way they do things”. That means someone over at Asda HQ giving feedback on day-to-day things like meeting structures and KPIs. “We can’t afford to get consultants to come in so we’re reliant on gleaning and poaching stuff in this way.
It’s an approach he believes gives it an advantage over other charities, which often lag decades behind in instilling the “best bits” of corporate practice, and one he is looking to roll out across the redistribution centres he now has responsibility for. “We’re trying to make sure we’re installing Agile methodologies, for example, and listening to customers more regularly to understand what they want and whether change has delivered measurable impact. It’s the same thing with the food industry side, that our account management is really good.”
The 35-year-old has also added a touch of academic rigour to the role, appointing an academic-in-residence – or “critical friend” – to challenge key assumptions at the charity. “The first question I asked her was, genuinely, is the redistribution of surplus food to vulnerable people the right thing to do?”
Her answer was, thankfully, yes, but the fact that she was brought in at all is testament to Gibbon-Walsh’s ambition and initiative. His bookcase spans String Theory, emotional engagement and eighteenth century classics. He’s co-founded the soon-to-be-launched Affordable Health Initiative, which aims to train schools in the poorest parts of the world to deliver education and preventative health support to children. And before he even joined FareShare he’d preceded submarine building with a PhD in environmental engineering in Calcutta, volunteering at Romanian orphanages and living in Paris for a bit “doing music”.
“Although I’ve learned a lot about the food industry, and I’ve been able to do a huge amount and have been incredibly lucky, I’d already done a huge amount before,” he agrees. An eclectic, diverse approach to career progression like this is only getting more important, he believes. “If you’re not constantly increasing your flexibility, your options and your ability to do multiple things then you’ll probably always get lumped into the same stuff, and just have to wait for the right job to come up. Do what you love, most people are good at what they love, but try and increase your flexibility.”
With that in mind, is a move elsewhere imminent for him? He doesn’t really say. “I don’t worry about it. I’ll keep doing what I love, as long as I love it. I’m lucky enough that my experience and what I’ve delivered so far puts me in a good position to do the same in different places.” Even if that means a role within the fmcg corporates he once held at arm’s length.