Food bank CEO's path brings him back to earth
The pivotal moment in Ken Estelle’s private life occurred at some point in the late 1990s when he became a volunteer worker with the mobile food pantry launched by his church to provide food for those who couldn’t afford it.
“I would see people standing in line that looked just like me — regular people. That just left an impression on me, one of those things you can’t shake.”
Estelle was an aerospace manufacturing executive who started with Honeywell Inc. as an engineer and ended up as vice president and general manager of one of the divisions of Rockwell Collins Inc., which designs and manufactures electronic communications, avionics and in-flight entertainment systems for commercial and military aircraft.
That career path made a radical change a year and a half ago when Estelle was hired by Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank in Comstock Park to serve as its new CEO, replacing long-time CEO John Arnold.
The change in careers “seemed logical to me,” said Estelle — but he conceded it might not have looked that way to people who didn’t know him.
That was in 1979; Estelle would spend the next 19 years with Honeywell. In the early 1980s, he took classes at Western International University in Phoenix and earned a degree in computer science. “Computers were coming on as the big thing at that time,” he said.
He moved up the career ladder at Honeywell from engineering to marketing, and eventually into international marketing management. Then, in the late 1990s, an opportunity arose for Estelle: a management job as international marketing manager at Smiths Industries, an aerospace company in Grand Rapids.
“We just felt that after 19 years it was time to come back home,” he said.
“We” includes his wife, Kathy, also a Grand Rapids native. In fact, the two met in kindergarten and their families had long been acquainted. They started dating in their senior year in high school and were married in 1978.
The Estelles were back home in Grand Rapids for nearly 10 years. Then, in 2007, Smiths was acquired by General Electric Aviation, which has its headquarters in Cincinnati. Estelle was a member of the executive team that worked on the local integration of the two companies.
“It was pretty clear my job would change,” he said. “Most executive positions do, in that type of thing.”
The expectation was that his job would “go away,” or he would be transferred to corporate headquarters in Cincinnati. Then along came Rockwell Collins, which recruited him to run one of its business units in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In April 2007, the Estelles moved to Cedar Rapids, where Ken was a senior executive at Rockwell Collins. He was there when the Great Recession set in but managed to keep his business unit going through the grim years of 2009 and 2010. That period for him was “very challenging but overall, very successful.”
Back when Estelle was working at Smiths Industries, he and his wife were volunteers at the food pantry operated by Discovery Church in Cutlerville. According to Estelle, the mobile food pantry concept was originated by Arnold around 1998 at Second Harvest Gleaners, which became Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank. Discovery Church was one of the first organizations to pick up on the idea, about a year later.
Estelle said he soon learned a lot about Second Harvest Gleaners and was impressed by how well it was run. The Estelles became contributors to the food bank, even after they moved to Cedar Rapids. It was in Iowa, in 2010, when the Estelles read in the FAWM newsletter that John Arnold was going to step down due to his losing battle with cancer.
Arnold’s experience with food banks started in the early 1980s, when he founded the Central Illinois Food Bank. Food banks rely on food donated by local food processing companies, grocery stores and agriculture. Most of that region was agricultural land, and most of what was raised were feed grains for cattle, hogs and chickens. Arnold was warned by food bank experts he might have a hard go of it.
However, the Central Illinois Food Bank soon was one of the fastest growing in the nation. Arnold had learned the art of getting businesses to donate to his organization. He told the Business Journal two years ago that the key was to make the experience so positive for the donors “that you become their first choice” when they have excess food.
In 1989, Arnold and his wife returned to their roots in West Michigan when he landed the job as director at Second Harvest Gleaners. West Michigan is more of a food-rich region. When coupled with Arnold’s effectiveness as a manager, it caused Second Harvest Gleaners to grow dramatically. By the early 1990s, the organization’s outreach to the business community was so successful, it could not accept all the food companies wanted to donate.
When he saw the article about Arnold retiring, Estelle said, “We just absolutely knew that I needed to come back and run the food bank.” Then came the doubts, he said. But eventually, he let the FAWM board know of his interest in the job. He was rather surprised when FAWM quickly responded with real interest. It wasn’t long before he was offered the job of CEO, and by April 2011, he was on the job.
Although he was seriously ill, Arnold was “really generous with his time,” showing Estelle the ropes. Later, when Arnold’s illness became more debilitating, he stayed in touch with Estelle by phone and then via email.
“John was just incredibly generous with his time and was quite the visionary. I really appreciated all the time he spent with me,” said Estelle.
Today, according to Estelle, Feeding America West Michigan distributes 24 million pounds of food annually to 1,300 agencies in the 40 counties in the west half of Michigan and the entire Upper Peninsula. Those agencies operate food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
The organization has a staff of about 60, of whom 40 are full time. Many work in the main warehouse in Comstock Park, but others work at facilities in Benton Harbor, Cadillac, Sault Ste. Marie and Ishpeming. FAWM also has partner warehouses in Petoskey and Houghton/Hancock, and is a member of the Feeding America national network of more than 200 foods banks around the country.
“To be a member of Feeding America, we have to meet fairly high standards of food safety, and we’re audited regularly,” said Estelle. “We are very focused on food safety and food handling.”
One of the ongoing challenges in Estelle’s job is perfecting distribution processes in the organization’s most remote areas, and logistics is another major challenge. FAWM has about 10 drivers and a fleet of about a dozen semi-tractors and many trailers, plus about 10 straight trucks. Many of the trucks are refrigerated and have been donated by various companies.
FAWM may be a nonprofit organization, but when fuel costs spike, it’s a serious headache for Estelle and the staff, just like it is at many American businesses.
Ken Estelle may have his feet on the ground at this stage of his career — but they are still in motion, every day.