It is with deep regret that the Lieutenancy records the death peacefully in his sleep of the former Lord Lieutenant of Kent, Allan Willett CMG CVO at his Chilham home on 18 July 2015. He would have been 79 next month.
His successor as Her Majesty The Queen’s representative in the County, Viscount De L’Isle MBE, said: “I know that all members of the Lieutenancy, past and present, will join me in paying tribute to a great Son of Kent who will be much missed. He will be remembered not only as a gifted business entrepreneur and inspirational public sector leader, but as a generous philanthropist and moderniser of the Kent Lieutenancy.”
Born in India of tea planter parents from Kent, Allan Willett returned with them at the age of two and was brought up on Thanet farms during World War II.
Although the family was bombed out of one farm and flooded out of the second, he formed an enduring love of what he called the Frontline County.
He played rugby for Kent as a schoolboy, was commissioned into the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) and served with the King’s African Rifles fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya.
After working as a salesman in Canada he moved into the packaging industry and back in Great Britain formed his own company on a shoestring. His entrepreneurial flair enabled him to grow it into Willett International Limited, one of the world’s largest electronic coding and information labelling companies.
It had operating subsidiaries in 30 countries, twice won The Queen’s Award for export – and for his achievements Allan Willett was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1997. Sale of the company in 2002 enabled him to launch his charitable Foundation, benefiting mainly Kent causes with donations of some £4 million.
As well as running his own company, Allan Willett devoted many years to public sector service, serving as Director of East Kent Enterprise Agency, Locate in Kent and as Chairman of East Kent Initiative and Forum.
In the early ’90s the Government invited him to become founding Chairman of the Industrial development Board for London and the South East. And in 1998 he was asked to establish the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), promoting sustainable wealth creation, re–generation and social inclusion in a region with a population of eight million people and a £150 billion economy. He stepped down as Chairman in December 2002 following his appointment as Lord Lieutenant of Kent.
He defined his Lieutenancy’s aims as: to provide a focus for County identity, unity and pride, give a sense of stability, recognise achievements, success and excellence, and promote service to others, and its aspiration to celebrate Kent, its unique history and culture, serve its communities – and contribute positively to its future. The Lieutenancy continues to pursue these aims under his successor.
In his personal tribute, Lord De L’Isle said: “When Her Majesty appointed Allan on the advice of the Prime Minister they made a choice that was, as they say, out of the box, yet truly inspired.
“The Monarchy itself was modernising to ensure its relevance in the 21st Century, and both The Royal Household and Number Ten Downing Street made it clear that they wanted the County Lieutenancies to march in step.
“In our corner, that required someone with a great love of our County. Someone with an incisive, innovative mind, considerable organisational skills, and above all a leader prepared to devote so much of his life to Kent.
“In Allan Willett they found the perfect match. The creator of Willett International, a man who had given many years to public sector work – much of it here in support of regeneration; and a man with deep roots here who truly loved Kent.
“He formed a team, of which I was proud to be a member, and set about modernising and reforming the Lieutenancy – succeeding to the point where Kent has become a by-word for best practice and leadership nationwide, a shining example to all other counties.
“His legacy includes what have already become great Kentish traditions: the Civic Service at which community leaders and volunteers rededicate themselves to the service of others and Spirit of Kent Award which recognises exceptional service by an individual to the county.
“He and his wife Anne carried out hundreds of engagements throughout the County, and he will especially be long remembered for the highly successful campaigns he inspired: calling for greater public support for the Forces of the Crown and their families; celebrating youth achievement, and promoting volunteering in the community.
“His philanthropy has also been outstanding: to Canterbury and Rochester Cathedrals, to the Marlowe Theatre and Turner Contemporary, which have both become significant economic engines helping to drive East Kent forward, and to many other voluntary community-based causes County-wide.”
As Lord Lieutenant he was President or Patron of a score of Kent organisations and voluntary bodies from the Men of Kent and Kentish Men to the Royal British Legion, and was appointed a Knight of Justice in the Order of St John. He chaired Canterbury Cathedral Trust at the launch of its current fund-raising campaign and was himself a major donor.
On his retirement as Lord Lieutenant he was appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO), an honour that is in the personal gift of Her Majesty The Queen.
He was also presented with the Kent Invicta Award for his exceptional service to Kent, and at a special meeting of the County Council its leader Paul Carter praised his generous charitable contributions and his outstanding public sector work.
He said: “You have transformed the Lieutenancy of Kent. You have been, alongside your wife Anne, totally dedicated to the job and exceptionally generous with your time. And your lead on the support to the Armed Forces in Kent and encouragement to young people has been second to none.
“Despite suffering bouts of illness in recent years you have carried on with dogged determination, keeping to extremely demanding schedules of duties and ceremonies in Kent.
“On behalf of the County Council, but more importantly on behalf of the Kentish men and women and the men and women of Kent and all our young people, we thank you.” And he added: “You have touched hearts and put a smile on so many faces.”
In recent years he was dogged by serious ill health, which he bore with fortitude, but continued to serve the County he loved, living up to the motto on his coat of arms: Be brave for there is much to dare.
Memorial Service details
A Memorial Service for the life of Allan Willett CMG CVO, will be held at Canterbury Cathedral on Friday 2nd October 2015 at 11.30am. All are welcome to attend the service but due to numbers likely to attend, entrance to the Cathedral will be by ticket only. To apply, please contact the Civic Office, Kent County Council, County Hall, Maidstone, ME14 1XQ, by email to email@example.com or by telephone to 01227 738800.