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KKR TO STAY WITH WILLIS

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NEW YORK -- Willis Corroon Group P.L.C. and its new owners, led by Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P., are happy to go on operating Willis as an independent rival to the industry's two global giants. For now.

Following its acquisition by KKR and five insurers, Willis will focus on expanding its global brokerage network, free from the distraction of being seen as a takeover target of rivals Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. and Aon Corp., Willis officials say.

While KKR views its stake in Willis as a long-term investment, officials of both companies don't rule out another change in its ownership down the road.

"A global franchise and brand like ours has value," observed John Reeve, executive chairman of Willis Corroon. "The further ahead we look, the broader the range of ownership options we see."

Mr. Reeve and Perry Golkin, a New York-based KKR official, both pointed not only to consolidation within the insurance industry but also to mergers across financial services sectors, such as the combination of Citicorp and Travelers Group.

"Nobody knows what the model will be," Mr. Golkin said. "Who knows what this part of the industry will look like?"

KKR, which manages about $6 billion on behalf of U.S. pension funds and other investors, typically invests with the intention of holding the investment for five to seven years, Mr. Golkin said, adding "we have lots of companies that have gone a lot longer" than seven years.

KKR's largest previous insurance industry acquisition was American Re Corp., which it bought in 1992 and sold to Munich Reinsurance Co. in 1996.

Whether or not Willis is ultimately sold to another company will depend largely on the views of its management, Mr. Golkin said.

"We will take our cue from them. They are the ones that oftentimes decide strategically what is appropriate," he said.

"We will have ample opportunities between ourselves and KKR to address the various ownership options," Mr. Reeve noted. "We are not spending any time thinking about that at the moment."

Instead, Willis is planning to expand as a privately owned company, no longer captive to its next quarterly earnings statement or burdened by persistent takeover rumors, Mr. Reeve said.

Morale already has improved. "It had been inevitably affected by the continuous rumors of transactions that were about to happen that would affect our independence," he said. "It was a distraction. Clients used to ask what our ownership status was."

Willis will now focus on adding to its "global distribution platform," he said, opening new brokerage outlets in Latin America after having established itself as a top-tier broker in Europe, Mr. Reeve said.

The company's growth will come both through "organic" expansion of its existing operations and through acquisitions.

"We are the only global alternative" to J&H Marsh & McLennan Inc. and Aon, he observed. "We think that position is going to bring very significant opportunities, including acquisition opportunities."

Meanwhile, Willis officials dismissed concerns about any potential conflict in the fact that its owners include insurance companies.

Trinity Acquisition P.L.C., the KKR-led consortium that acquired Willis, also includes Guardian Royal Exchange P.L.C., Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group P.L.C., Chubb Corp., The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Travelers Property Casualty Corp.

Insurers have also recently bought stakes in brokers USI Insurance Services Corp. and Tri-City Brokerage Inc.

The insurer investors in Willis Corroon "have no say or influence over our affairs. They do not sit on the board," Mr. Reeve asserted.

"There are no particular special arrangements with the five carriers as part of the transaction," he added, maintaining that Willis will not favor the insurers as a result of their investment.

He said, however, that "we are open to working closely with carriers that can provide value to our clients."

"I'm sure we will work closely with the five carriers that have invested in our business. . .but we will equally work with other carriers if we think they can add value to our business," Mr. Reeve said.

"They understand that, as far as we're concerned, we serve the client first," noted Kenneth Pinkston, chairman of Nashville, Tenn.-based Willis Corroon Corp. and group executive director of Willis Corroon Group.

Insurance companies are investing in brokers not to gain control over their business but to prevent the megabrokers from acquiring them and gaining that much more of a stranglehold on the market, Mr. Reeve said.

"They are investing in brokers to ensure that consolidation does not reach the point where there is such a paucity of choice that it damages their own business," he observed.

"If choice becomes severely constrained, I think there will be a lot of losers," Mr. Reeve said.