Local businessman and philanthropist David Burbidge CBE, DL discusses his position as Chairman of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and heading Coventry City of Culture 2020. 

The public reputation of business has suffered considerably over the past decade. With issues such as executive pay in the spotlight, businesses can be seen as greedy or unfair. 

And while philanthropy – the traditional means for successful entrepreneurs to put something back into their local communities - is a way of life for many in the United States, here in the UK the practice has fallen out of fashion and its image remains to an extent stuck in the past. 

So very often, business leaders are perceived as being self-serving and concerned only with the bottom line – but this is a caricature that certainly can’t be applied to David Burbidge CBE, DL.  

Coventry born and bred, Mr. Burbidge is a true philanthropist.  

For many years, David was managing director of the family business, before becoming chairman and passing the baton of day-to-day leadership to his son, Ben. Their family business, Coventry-based Burbidge & Son, is a manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom furniture. The business pioneered the introduction of world-class manufacturing techniques in the sector. 

Where a successful business career would be sufficient for many people, for Mr. Burbidge it was not enough – he wanted to leave a legacy to the city and the region which had helped him to succeed. 

“For various reasons philanthropy is much more important in the United States than it is here in the UK, but giving and helping others – having the satisfaction of knowing that your money is helping other people - is rewarding in itself,” he says. 

“As well as the act of donating money, philanthropy also provides one with the opportunity to use one’s business experience to take an active role in an organisation.”

A life of service and philanthropy 

David Burbidge’s CV includes periods as a Warwick district councillor, High Sheriff of the West Midlands and most recently as chairman of the Coventry City of Culture Trust, where he led his home city’s successful bid to be UK City of Culture 2021. 

He holds honorary degrees from the universities of Warwick and Coventry, and in the cultural sphere, has been chairman of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, chairman of the Central Campaign for the £113 million transformation of the Royal Shakespeare theatres and slightly further afield, on the board of the Garsington Opera Company in Oxfordshire – to all of which he has made philanthropic donations. 

As chairman of Coventry Cathedral Development Trust he was responsible for raising more than £5 million in funds for the Cathedral ministry, which led to his award of an OBE in 1998. This was followed by another trip to Buckingham Palace 18 years later – this time to receive a CBE in recognition of his services to cultural philanthropy in the West Midlands.  

“I was born and brought up in Coventry and it was in 1991, when I had just finished my term as High Sheriff, that I was approached by the Dean of Coventry Cathedral over whether I could provide any help to improve their financial situation,” he says. 

“As a local boy I jumped at the chance. I made a starting gift to the cathedral’s £5 million campaign and this was a success in terms of getting the cathedral back on its feet financially. 

“It was obviously a huge honour to lead Coventry’s successful UK City of Culture 2021 bid and it is a tremendously exciting period as we head towards 2021, bearing in mind what the title helped to achieve in the past for the likes of Hull and Liverpool. 

“This is a flagship opportunity to show the world that culture, in its widest sense, can bring tangible benefits to communities.”  

Taking the reins at the CBSO 

But it is neighbouring Birmingham which presents Mr. Burbidge’s latest challenge – that of chairman of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). 

Currently sponsored by accountancy, investment management and tax group Smith & Williamson, the CBSO is regarded as one of the world’s leading symphony orchestras and celebrates its centenary in 2020.   

Mr. Burbidge has already made a £100,000 gift to Birmingham’s orchestra this year – alongside a gift to the city’s Royal Ballet – and is spearheading the CBSO’s centenary fundraising campaign, alongside his role heading up Coventry’s Capital of Culture campaign.  

“This is a major opportunity for the CBSO to ensure that it is on a secure financial footing for another 100 years and to keep it at the top of its game. 

“Beyond the more obvious work of an orchestra however, it also does valuable work in developing young musicians and has an education outreach programme in the city. 

“That’s the point with culture. The value that is created by the cultural and creative sector is massive – it’s the fastest growing sector of our economy. But more than that, everyone’s lives are touched by culture, and enriched by it to some extent. 

“Of course, people can only give according to their means, but I would strongly recommend philanthropy and it is certainly something that needs to grow as the amount of government funding available for these kinds of projects is likely to continue to decline.” 

Adrian Taylor is Partner, investment management – charities in Smith & Williamson’s Birmingham office, and the trustee of the CBSO’s pension fund. 

“Charities, and cultural activity in its widest sense, is an important and growing sector for us as a firm and charities account for around 10 per cent of our funds under management,” he said.  

“The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is a beacon of cultural life in Birmingham and the West Midlands and is one of the world’s most successful orchestras, so we are delighted to be sponsoring it as its centenary year approaches.  

“Nonetheless the importance of philanthropic activity, as epitomised by the orchestra’s chairman himself, cannot be over-stated at a time when charities face such strong budgetary pressures.” 

 

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