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Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2017

Crumbliss’ winding path to Food Bank

‘Mama bear’ finds fit after careers in banking, acting

Surveying the massive, 40,000-square-foot Chattanooga Area Food Bank warehouse on Amnicola Highway, Gina Crumbliss motions toward a broad stack of silver “shiners” – unlabeled cans of vegetables to be marked by hand – before saying hello to three of her 3,000-plus volunteers as they scoop loose cornflake crumbs from a bin into small plastic bags.

At the Sack Pack assembly area where her crew assembles nearly 15,000 parcels of milk, cereal and other foods every week during the school year, she stops to tell a story.

“When teachers noticed that attendance spiked on Fridays and Mondays, they realized it was because the kids were coming to school to eat [free lunches],” says Crumbliss, who took over as Food Bank president and CEO last June.

“One teacher told us about a little girl who wrote that her favorite day of the week was Friday “because that’s when I get my Sack Pack and I know somebody loves me.’”

Storytelling, especially the kind that moves people to give, purchase a product, or pledge their allegiance to a company or cause, comes easily to Crumbliss, 54, a Chattanooga native who learned the importance of helping others early on.

“I’m a Mama Bear,” she points out. “I am always the one who’s the first to help, and it’s in my DNA. My parents were givers. We just always volunteered our time, talents, resources. That’s just what we did, almost to a fault.”

A former child gymnast – she competed for eight years, including in the Junior Olympics – Crumbliss earned her organizational management degree from Covenant College while waiting tables at the upscale Loft restaurant, “the” place to go for business meetings and romantic dinners in the 1980s. She also became a credit manager at a drug and alcohol psychiatric hospital.

Newly married, in 1989 she moved with her spouse to South Florida and spotted an ad for a collections position at C&S Bank. “So, I walk in with a Southern accent to apply,” she says, laughing about the girth of her “big blonde hair” at the time.

“They liked me, but they said, ‘We don’t really think you’re appropriate for collections. But we want you.’”

Assigned to the financial analysis department, she flourished in her first banking job.

When C&S merged with the Chattanooga-based Sovereign Bank, Crumbliss moved back home and became assistant to then-president Tom Edd Wilson. (Sovereign later became Nations Bank, then Bank of America.)

While recording the minutes at board and loan committee meetings, she fell in love with the lending side of the business. So, Wilson, whom Crumbliss refers to as a generous mentor, gave her the St. Elmo branch to manage. She was there for only three months before being asked to help lead the more prestigious downtown branch in the Republic Centre tower.

Through the years, she built a client portfolio by getting involved with non-profit organizations. She volunteered with local chapters of the American Heart Association, the March of Dimes and the American Cancer Society, and chaired membership drives for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, all the while building a network of loyal followers who came to her with their banking needs.

In 1998, Crumbliss took a sabbatical from banking to pursue another interest: commercial acting. In Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chattanooga, she did television and radio ads; voiceovers and infomercials; and music, industrial and professional training videos.

She became the voice of Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union and the face of the “Comcast girl,” a role that still prompts a double-take from some longtime locals when they spot her on the street.

The two careers weren’t all that different, Crumbliss points out. “Banking is sales. It’s telling a story because you’re selling money, and it’s all the same. The rates are similar. It’s the same product. So, I’ve got to outperform my competition [with] customer service. In advertising, I’ve got to be able to tell my story. And in fundraising, it’s telling your story.”

By 2005, Crumbliss had had enough of the feast-or-famine lifestyle that often comes with freelance acting and took a job as director of development at Chattanooga’s Ronald McDonald House. But within three years, the 24/7 demands of caring for out-of-town families whose sick or injured children are in the hospital were taking their toll.

“I didn’t have an on-off button,” she admits. “I had a very hard time finding a work-family balance. I was burning out.”

In 2008, as the recession began to take hold – “you have to really question my sanity,” she adds, laughing – she accepted a post with FSG Bank and helped open a branch in Hixson, then launched the bank’s new marketing department.

“FSG had the same footprint, pretty much, as the Food Bank. I get emotional because this is God’s plan, and you just never know when your work trajectory takes you on these zigzags and dog-legs throughout your life,” Crumbliss recalls, tears welling up in her eyes as she talks about how her marketing job with FSG acquainted her with the residents of the same communities she would later serve in her role at the Food Bank.

She had just made another career move, to senior vice president at FirstBank, the state’s largest independently-owned bank, when a headhunter came calling about the vacant presidency at the Food Bank, one of the city’s largest non-profit groups.

She turned down the offer, but the recruiter wouldn’t give up and kept sending Crumbliss statistics about those living with hunger in the agency’s 20-county, 7,000-square-mile area in Tennessee and north Georgia.

Before long, the prospect of being able to use her skills to make a difference began nagging at Crumbliss, especially when she remembered how her husband, Clay, had gushed about a Food Bank tour a few months earlier and how she had talked up the Sack Pack program as president of the Hamilton Place Rotary Club.

What’s more, Crumbliss was impressed with the Food Bank’s elite partnership with Feeding America, a progressive national group that serves as a sort of “big brother” to food banks nationwide.

In 2015, Feeding America had challenged the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, and only two others in the U.S., to double the amount of food it provides by 2025. The effort was well underway. “I knew business. I knew fundraising. I knew marketing. And I know people,” she adds.

“And when I looked and I saw the footprint, I said, ‘I know these people.’”

A resourceful, self-described “sponge,” Crumbliss has spent her first year at the helm learning everything she can about the inner workings of agencies like the one she now runs. She has also used her connections to build advocacy partnerships with business leaders and piggyback services in their communities.

A health care organization, for example, might give the Food Bank a grant to expand and, in exchange, send representatives out with the Food Bank’s mobile pantry to provide free screenings.

Passionate and “moved to action when I witness an injustice or if I am in a position to help, Crumbliss feels right at home battling hunger, which affects nearly 145,000 “food insecure” individuals and one in four children in the organization’s service area.

Don’t let the sunny disposition and can-do attitude, along with the dancing in the hallways ­– she’s been known to spontaneously do an arabesque or plie´, a throwback from her gymnast days – fool you, she adds.

“I take it all very seriously, because I am a very, very deep person,” she asserts. “I’m very protective in looking out for the less fortunate. The way I view life is I have been very fortunate and I’ve been without, and I know the only things of value are your character and integrity. … Knowing that through the generosity of others, I’m in a position to help – that makes me happy.

“I am a problem-solver and connector at my core,” she adds. “Problems rarely throw me because I usually have a Plan A, B and C in place. I’ve probably already dissected them and tried to find solutions from every angle, and I’m prepared for whatever comes.”

This year, the Food Bank is on track to distribute 16.3 million pounds of food, up from 13.9 million in 2016. The cooler room, filled with boxes of sweet potatoes, Romaine lettuce and other fresh produce, recently doubled in size.

And a $150,000 grant from Publix supermarket is funding a new, grocery-store-style section of the warehouse where clients can “shop” for up to 95 pounds of food, including birthday cakes, a rarity among food banks nationwide.

Recently, when Crumbliss underwent some routine blood work, the nurse confided in her that she at one time needed help feeding her family. Soon after, while Crumbliss was test-driving cars at a dealership, the salesman told her the same thing.

“Over 80 percent of the folks who need our food have some college education, and at least one member in their household has worked for a paycheck,” she explains.

“These were my tellers. They’re teachers, policemen, people in the service industry, in manufacturing. These are hardworking people. It’s not necessarily the person standing at the end of the exit ramp holding a sign. These are people who have been diagnosed with an illness and they lost their job because they didn’t have sick time. These are grandparents raising their grandkids.”

Her favorite part of the job, she says, is “telling their stories.”