Cheers for the drinks expert

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Chris Banks, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council and newly-awarded CBE, talks about his vision for skills training. Joe Clancy reports

For a man who manufactures crisps, snacks and soft drinks, Chris Banks cuts a remarkably slim figure. There does not appear to be much surplus weight on the businessman, who earns his living by creating calories for the populous to devour.

It may be the busy lifestyle he leads that keeps him in shape. As well as running his snacks company Big Thoughts, he has taken on a multitude of other roles.

He is deputy chair of the National Employment Panel and chair of its skills advisory board and London employer coalition.

He is a member of the supervisory board of Community Action Network, a think-tank dealing with social problems, and is president of the British Soft Drinks Association.

To that long list of jobs titles, he added a new one last week when he was appointed chair of the Learning and Skills Council, the government body that funds post-16 education.

His appointment to a key educational role might seem incongruous at a time when the Government is actively campaigning for healthy eating in educational institutions to tackle obesity.

If a college wanted funding to run a healthy-eating campaign, that included banning soft drinks and crisps from the campus, would he be willing to stump up the money?

The 44-year-old father of three smiles wryly as he answers these questions.

"The areas we operate in are at the healthy end of the market," he insists.

"You will find that the healthier brands are performing better than the standard ones right now.

"We make juices and fruit drinks, and on the crisps and snack side we produce low-fat and fat-free snacks."

His company is a supplier of snacks for Marks amp; Spencer, he says, and makes snacks under the Weight Watchers brand. He also makes 5Alive, Minute Maid and Roo Juice drinks for Coca-Cola.

"Soft drinks and snacks can play a useful role in a healthy diet," he adds.

"In fact we have been asked to be involved in a 'liquid means life'

initiative, especially for schools, to teach the importance of liquid in a healthy lifestyle.

"The really important principle is one of choice. The vending and selling of food and drink is an important source of income for colleges."

It was seven years ago, when he was managing director of Coca-Cola UK, that Mr Banks first became active in FE and was invited to get involved in the New Deal task force, looking at young people moving from welfare to work.

"We were dealing with the consequences of people not having the skills they needed to obtain good jobs. When the LSC was first mooted, I welcomed becoming involved because it was a great opportunity to deal with the root causes as opposed to the consequences."

He became a member of the LSC's national council when it was set up in 2001 and became chair of its young people's learning committee.

"Almost all employers were saying at that time that the biggest issue was recruiting people with the skills they needed to compete. Employers have a vital role to play in identifying what their needs are in training and skills," he added.

In 2001, he led a management buy-out of Coca-Cola's drinks manufacturing plant in Durham, which now makes and packages drinks for more than 30 companies. He has since bought plants that make snacks and now employs around 140 people in companies that turn over more than pound;10 million a year.

"Within our business people are our greatest asset," he said. "We have invested heavily in formal training and in skills that have a direct impact on productivity. We do that with private training providers in partnership with local colleges.

"The juice business is very technical, with a high level of automation requiring a high level of skills."

He admits, however, that much of the training of his workforce does not end up with his employees receiving formal qualifications, something he hopes to remedy when the sector skills council for the food and drink industry comes on line soon.

"We offer a licence to operate within our sector but that does not necessarily translate into a formal qualification. It is important to have that formal recognition of achievement of certain skills. That will be a significant step forward.

"We want to have an apprenticeship scheme, particularly related to electrical engineering, and we would take on apprentices under that as soon as we could."

Awarded the CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours last year for services to young people and the unemployed, he will now be paid pound;50,000 a year for his two days a week as LSC's chair, a post he will hold for four years.

One reform that Education Secretary Charles Clarke will expect him to drive forward will be funding changes so that employers and learners make a bigger contribution to training costs.

"Employers are already spending pound;20 billion a year in investing in the training and skills of their people," he said. "We will do all we can to focus that huge investment on good-quality learning and training."

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