Doing Good after Doing Well

Curt Welling '75, honored with Vanderbilt Law School's 2011 Distinguished Service Award, embarked on a second career as CEO of AmeriCares, a global humanitarian aid organization.
Curt Welling '75

In 2000, Curt Welling, Class of 1975, left his position as president and CEO of SG Cowen Securities Corporation to become CEO of a fledgling internet billing company. Welling's position at SG Cowen had been the capstone of a successful career as an investment banker with First Boston, Bear Stearns and Société Générale, SG Cowen's parent company, and though he had held senior executive positions throughout his career, "It was the first time I'd ever run an operating company," Welling recalled. He spent the next year relishing the challenge of taking the privately held, venture-funded company through a complete recapitalization.

By September 2001, Welling had nailed down his financing arrangements. On September 11, he was meeting with his lead investor at his office in Princeton, New Jersey, when someone mentioned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. "I'm a private pilot, and my reaction was, they let small planes fly too low over the city, and sooner or later this was bound to happen," he said. "Of course, that's not what happened, and we didn't close the recapitalization."

Welling, who had served on numerous non-profit boards and become a devoted philanthropist, had considered launching a second career in the non-profit world. In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he remembers a long commute during which he realized he wanted to find the right opportunity "while I was still young enough so that it could be a career." Welling left the billing company and devoted the next six months to studying the non-profit world in search of an organization where he knew he could make a positive difference. Within a year, he joined AmeriCares as its second president and CEO, taking the reins from the organization's charismatic founder, Robert C. Macauley.

The organization had its roots in a daring and unprecedented rescue mission Macauley had launched in April 1975. A U.S. jet carrying 243 Vietnamese orphans crashed soon after takeoff on April 4, leaving critically injured survivors, almost all of them children, stranded in a remote Vietnamese jungle. When the Pentagon announced it would be 10 days before it could dispatch a rescue mission, Macauley, a paper broker from New Canaan, Connecticut, who seemed an unlikely good Samaritan, mortgaged his house to charter a Boeing 747. Macauley's mission and his creative financing were widely reported, and the fearlessness and selflessness with which he had responded to a daunting challenge obviously registered with Pope John Paul II. In 1981, he contacted Macauley to ask for help delivering medical supplies to Poland, which was embroiled in a pro-democracy struggle and under martial law. Macauley founded AmeriCares the following year on the strength of the Pope's support and that mission's success. In the three decades since, it has evolved into a well-organized global non-profit organization that assembles and delivers donated medicines, medical supplies and humanitarian aid, often in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters. By the time Welling came on board as CEO, Macauley was in his late 70s and had suffered a serious health setback, and the need for a strong successor was readily apparent. Macauley remained active on the organization's board until his death at age 87 in 2010, but passed the day-to-day responsibility for running the organization to Welling in 2002.

Welling acknowledges that none of the areas to which he has traveled with AmeriCares missions were included in his globe-trotting as an international investment banker, but he was well-equipped to lead AmeriCares both by aptitude and education. He had earned his law degree at Vanderbilt after earning his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth and serving in the National Guard. Having struggled to decide between earning a J.D. or an MBA, he ultimately earned both; after finishing his J.D. at Vanderbilt, Welling immediately entered Dartmouth's Tuck School, where he studied finance. He took the New York bar exam and was admitted to the bar, but joined First Boston in 1977 after earning his MBA at a starting salary of $17,000 a year with a guaranteed 15- or 20-percent annual bonus. However, although Welling never practiced law, he found the discipline required to study law helpful throughout his career. "Both degrees have served me well," he said. "My business degree was very useful as a credential and entrée, but much less useful as an intellectual discipline. Law allows you to bring order out of factual chaos. If you have that discipline, and nurture that perspective and skill set, it's useful to you in any context. But if I had it to do over again, I'd probably be smart enough to do it in four years rather than five."

Earthquake and tsunami relief in Indonesia

Earthquake and tsunami relief in Indonesia

Welling was a seasoned international traveler from his years as an investment banker, but none of his travels had prepared him for his first trip as AmeriCares' CEO. In November 2002, he accompanied a planeload of medicine and supplies to North Korea soon after its government acknowledged that the country had embarked on a program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Welling led the delivery partly to ensure that the donated medicines and supplies would reach their intended beneficiaries—people in famine-stricken areas of the "Hermit Kingdom" outside its relatively well-off capital, Pyongyang, and children in particular—and partly because providing aid of any sort to North Korea, a country governed for the past 60 years by a hostile socialist regime that devotes most national resources to its military, was extremely controversial. "The armed forces did and still do eat first and well before anyone else in North Korea," Welling affirmed. "But one of our cardinal rules is that we won't turn donations of supplies or money over to any government, although we did work with the North Korean Ministry of Health." Welling departed confident that the supplies had reached the intended recipients in the North Korean countryside, but shaken by the poor quality of life the North Korean government afforded most of its citizens. "This realization has become much clearer in my mind since I joined AmeriCares: If you're fortunate enough to be born in the United States of America, you are one of the most fortunate people on the earth," Welling said. "We live on this island of prosperity and opportunity, while 75 to 80 percent of the world is living in a place where people face a daily struggle to just get along."

Malnourished child in Niger

Malnourished child in Niger

Welling recalls that Burma, where AmeriCares was able to dispatch a planeload of supplies after Cyclone Nargis devastated much of the low-lying country in May 2008, presented a thornier challenge than North Korea. Burma is governed by a secretive military junta, and Burmese government officials, who call their country Myanmar, were deeply suspicious of and resistant to any aid from the West. As soon as AmeriCares' plane landed in the country's capital, Rangoon, it was met on the tarmac by soldiers who demanded the crew leave the cargo of medical and emergency supplies for them to distribute. The crew refused, knowing the supplies would not reach those in need if they were surrendered to the Burmese military. "Our project leader was very strong-willed, and she refused to get out of the way of the plane," Welling said. "Our pilots had instructions to take off with the cargo if the Burmese military didn't allow us to keep it in our custody and supervise its distribution." The soldiers ultimately relented, and the aid shipment was successfully delivered.

A neo-natal unit in Kosovo

A neo-natal unit in Kosovo

In an experience he recalls as his most personally harrowing, Welling led the first of 11 AmeriCares airlifts into the desert to Darfur in western Sudan, landing with 40 tons of desperately needed medical supplies for refugees from the Sudanese civil war. He visited Vanderbilt soon after that trip and related his experiences in the 2006 Victor S. Johnson Lecture, in which he described himself as a "recovering investment banker." Welling termed the situation in Darfur, where more than a million refugees, mostly women and children, were living in temporary shelters, as a "complex humanitarian emergency. These emergencies are a point of intersection of politics, economics, law and morality," he said. "They are man-made disasters, products of actions taken by men in a variety of contexts, and a fairly sophisticated understanding of each of those vectors is required to address them."

Darfur refugees in Chad

Darfur refugees in Chad

In recent decades, according to Welling, such complex man-made disasters have caused more deaths than any natural disaster with the single exception of disease pandemics. While organizations such as AmeriCares can help to sustain people displaced by emergencies such as the civil war in Libya, he emphasizes that they cannot provide a long-term solution. "Displaced people want to go back to their homes and return to a self-sufficient lifestyle," Welling said. "If their safety and security is assured, there's no physical impediment to them doing so. But this can't happen in areas where political conditions exist that prevent them from doing this safely. And in a shrinking world with a rapidly growing population, we have run out of room to ignore the problems created by complex human emergencies," such as the current need for housing, care and support for refugees fleeing the civil war in Libya.

Welling is justifiably proud of his work at AmeriCares, which has provided over $6 billion of global medical and emergency response assistance during his tenure as its CEO and spends only two percent of its donated revenues—many of which come in the form of $50 to $100 annual contributions from individual donors—on administrative costs. He has also expanded the fold of international corporations who provide in-kind donations of medicines, medical supplies and other relief supplies to support AmeriCares' humanitarian relief missions, including emergency airlifts of medical supplies to tsunami-devastated Sendai, Japan, starting soon after the tsunami.

He was honored for his work with AmeriCares and his personal philanthropy with Vanderbilt's Distinguished Service Award at the Founders Circle Dinner in Nashville on April 8. "In 2002, Curt switched gears and took his leadership skills from the private sector to the non-profit sector when he became president and CEO of AmeriCares," said Dean Chris Guthrie, introducing Welling at the Founders Circle Dinner. "Curt was an obvious choice for this award because of his service to all of the communities of which he is member, including the law school, and to those in dire need around the globe."

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