After a decade at AmeriCares Curt Welling finds it’s time to move on
Curt Welling sits in an office with exposed brick wall and a window that looks toward I-95. The office, in a building in an industrial area of Stamford, is scattered with gifts and framed pictures, both on the wall and in a case. They are memories of an 11-year run as president and CEO of AmeriCares.
Mr. Welling and his wife, Kathy, moved to Wilton in 1980. At that time he was working as an investment banker in Manhattan.
“We liked the area,” he said. “We fell in love with it and have been here ever since.”
The Wellings immersed themselves in Wilton. Mr. Welling joined the Board of Finance, where he served as chairman, while Ms. Welling was the chair of the library board, as well as chair of the strategic plan.
“She basically raised the money for the new library,” he said.
Together, they’ve attended church at St. Matthew’s and did as many volunteer things as possible. They also raised two children: Katie, 30, and Alex, 25.
So how exactly does this man of numbers go from the finance business into heading a company that has distributed more than $11 billion in humanitarian aid to 164 countries?
“I went from business school to First Boston, which is now Credit Suisse,” he said. “I was in the investment banking and securities business for 25 years. During that time, both my wife and I were involved in a number of nonprofit activities.”
Mr. Welling was the board chairman at Spence-Chapin, an adoption and children’s service agency based in New York.
“At one point, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if this was my day job?’ That sort of morphed into the notion that, at some point, it would be nice to have a second career, working for a mission-driven organization.”
He said he had to decide what to do. An important event helped make that decision for him.
“I was running a little financial services company in the billing and payment area (Princeton eCom Corp.) when Sept. 11 happened. I wanted to do it when I was still young enough so it could be a real job. Not a hobby. I set out to find an organization where I could make a significant contribution, which could benefit from some of the things I’ve learned.”
Speaking about Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Welling said, “It seems hard to recapture the intensity of that day. It was one of those moments when everything that you assumed about the way the world worked got turned upside down. It was really a moment of incredible anxiety. There aren’t many times in your life when you encounter comprehensive uncertainty. It was an incredibly intense period of time.”
“So now when I go to places like Sri Lanka after the tsunami, or Japan after the tsunami, or Haiti after the earthquake, I’m reminded of that 9/11 experience because what those people are going through is that kind of intense disruption to their lives and the way that they think about their lives unfolding.”
A mutual friend told Mr. Welling that AmeriCares founder Robert McCauley was preparing to step away.
“I was fortunate enough that they decided that I was the right guy for the next installment,” he said.
Dealing with often unspeakable tragedies, it would be easy for Mr. Welling to wonder what he got himself into, but he says that never crossed his mind.
“I had lots of ‘Oh, my God’ moments,” he said with a laugh. “When you go from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector, you’re making a profound cultural change. The for-profit sector is all about the marketplace and money. The nonprofit sector is all about the mission and the good that you’re seeking to do.”
“I think it took people a little while to get used to me and it took me a little while to get used to people, but you have to understand AmeriCares was a much smaller place then. We were 40 people in 7,500 square feet over in New Canaan. Now we’re 130 or 140 people in 25,000 square feet, and we have five branch offices in other places in the world.
He recalled two moments in his tenure, beginning with the Darfur crisis, in which 2 million people were displaced. He flew to Sudan on the airlift with 40 tons of medicine and supplies.
“I remember flying in over the largest refugee camp in South Sudan, where there are 150,000 people and thinking that’s the population of Hartford,” he said. “It’s a world that I had never experienced that brings you face to face with the heart of what we do.”
I found myself saying, ‘Gee what can we do about this?’”
The Asian tsunami struck next, and Mr. Welling saw the opportunity to do the good work that AmeriCares does but also ensure that money was put to work in the way donors wanted it to be used.
“That was a really transforming moment for the organization, and for me,” he said.
He was in his office on May 20 when the tornado hit Moore, Okla., just outside of Oklahoma City.
“It’s a tribute to both the original concept of the organization, and the core values, and the staff here, that the reaction is almost instinctive and instantaneous,” he said. “We have moment-by-moment notification of things that are happening all over the world.”
“In this case, it became clear that we needed to get a field team mobilized and on the way as quickly as possible. Two of our senior field people left the office at 3 a.m. and they were on the ground in Oklahoma by 10.”
The organization utilizes electronic media and more to gather information, and at that point, each person is aware of his or her job and does what is required.
Additionally, AmeriCares works with other entities, such as medical and pharmaceutical companies, to make sure that they are ready for any situation.
“Last year we got donations in our overall business from 200 pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies,” he said. We’ve become such a key partner to many of these businesses. It’s very gratifying.
“When Bob started the organization in 1982, he really had two ideas in mind. One was to respond quickly to unexpected events. The other was to develop a supply of donated things and get them to people in the world who need them.”
“We distribute hundreds of millions of dollars worth of donated medicines and medical supplies in 90 countries around the world every year,” he said. “Increasingly we’re doing that in the United States as well.”
As an example of that, AmeriCares operates free clinics in Danbury, Bridgeport and Norwalk that saw 10,000 visits last year from people who need medical attention but don’t have the means to pay.
With all of the success of AmeriCares, the question “Why leave now?” must be asked.
“I’m well into my 11th year here,” he said. “I think, in the rhythm of organizations, that’s a good time to think about transitioning.
“From a personal standpoint, there are some other things I’d like to do. I have plenty of gas left in the tank.”
As he prepared to leave, he took a look back.
“There are probably 20 or 30 things that come across my desk every day that I look at and say I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of the people and the quality of the work that we do.”
On the personal side, there is also some reflection.
“My first trip was to North Korea. Not too many investment bankers go there. I do like to travel, and I’ve developed a much richer sense of what the world is about, which I expect I’ll want to continue.
“I like to read and play the occasional golf game, but I’m not retiring to go play golf.
“I’ve always had the resolve that I was going to take piano lessons.”
With music, Mr. Welling returned to thinking about Wilton.
“I happen to live next door to the Brubeck family,” he said. “I like jazz a lot, and I have to say by some enormous magnitude that Dave was my favorite jazz musician. Dave’s music career sort of is the arc of my life. He started his popularity in the late 50s and became the most recognizable jazz figure on the planet. He’s one of my heroes.”