Stockbridge — How many gripping stories can one life generate? In the case of Sheffield resident Loet Velmans, he is able to recount at least two full-blown adventures, either of which is enough to captivate an audience.
Velmans, 91 now and author of “A Long Way Back To the Bridge on the River Kwai,” will share one of those stories – how he survived three and a half years of cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of his Japanese captors in a slave labor camp in Thailand during World War II – when he speaks on Tuesday, October 21, at the meeting of The Tuesday Club of Stockbridge. The event takes place at 2 p.m. at the Congregational Church, Main Street, Stockbridge. Admission is free. (Donations appreciated.) Tea will follow the program.
The second story is equally interesting: how Velmans, Dutch by birth, left the war as a disease-ridden POW and built a career that brought him to the position of CEO of New York-based Hill & Knowlton, a global leader in public relations strategy with clients worldwide.
The path of his career was not a straight line. Starting as a journalist in Singapore and then Amsterdam, he found work in New York calling on publishers and ad agencies to sell the services of Dutch printing companies. From his ad agency clients, he learned for the first time the concept of public relations. Commenting to friends about how the Dutch did a lousy p.r. job in their relationship with Indonesia, he was immediately recommended to the lawyer for the French about their relationship with Morocco. And suddenly, he had his first client in the brand new field of international public relations. This brought him to the attention of John W. Hill, founder of Hill & Knowlton, who hired him, even though Velmans notoriously claimed in his interview to know absolutely nothing about the field. After twenty years heading up Hill & Knowlton in Europe, with responsibility as well for Japan, China and Australia, Velmans was brought back to world-wide headquarters in New York where, in 1974, he became Vice-Chairman International. In 1976, he became Chairman and CEO. In 1979, when Hill & Knowlton was acquired by ad agency J. Walter Thompson (renamed WPP), Velmans became a member of the board of the parent company as well. He retired in 1986, to a life of active and productive involvement in no less than 17 non-profit organizations.
In a recent interview with Velmans, I tried to discover the connections between these two phases of his life. When asked how he survived the camps, Velmans credits his youth. When asked how he achieved professional success, he credits luck and being at the right place at the right time. Yet, as he tells his story, it becomes clear that Velmans had other traits – courage, resourcefulness, determination, a willingness to take risks, an instinct for what might work, and a capacity for friendship and collaboration. Those who will hear him speak on Tuesday or have read his book will see these traits at work.