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Flying the Willis flag


Joe Plumeri marked his sixth anniversary this month as chairman and chief executive officer of Willis Group Holdings Ltd. In that time, he has been at the center of a whirlwind of change and growth at the brokerage. He spoke recently with Business Insurance Editor Regis Coccia about where he's taking Willis.

Q: What achievements are you proudest of at Willis?

You've always got to be proud of results and the stock price, but I am most proud of the culture we've built here. The Willis pin means a lot to us here. The culture is one where people work together, it's cooperative. "One flag" means something. Being a global company is insignificant if it's just about flags and countries, because then it's nothing but a geography lesson. What's significant about being a global broker is everybody around the globe works with each other in the best interest of the client.... There's no more beautiful sight than people who are very good at what they do enjoying working together, all going in the same direction with the same dream.

Q: One thing that makes Willis different is it lacks a consulting operation. Is that by design?

That's what you're supposed to do. I was once getting my shoes shined and I said to the guy, "How long have you been shining shoes?" And he said, "I don't shine shoes." I asked, "What do you do?" He said, "I'm a shoe-ologist." "You're a what? What the heck is that?" He said, "I consult you about your shoes, whether you need new laces or not, I'll repair scuffs, tell you about your heels, your soles. That's more than just a shoeshine person, but I'm going to charge you for the shine." If I start a consultation department, I'm telling my brokers "Just place the transaction. You're the commodity and you're the people with the brains." That's ridiculous and why, on purpose, we don't have a consulting operation.

Q: In June, Willis announced a Willis Quality Index to benchmark insurers. Why?

This is an initiative where we're trying to work with the carriers that are our partners because we need them to underwrite business. We want to see where we can find, by a measure along a lot of different categories, where they can improve in the service of our clients.... The whole idea for everything we do in this business is to be aspirational and heroic, which is to say raise our game. That's what Willis is all about. That's what Chapter 3 is about: it's called Shaping Our Future.

It's not about yesterday, it's about tomorrow. It's not about memories, it's about dreams. That's why we're selling our building in London. That's a memory, that was yesterday. The new building, that's tomorrow. Chapter 1 was about execution and performance--going from acting like an LBO to our IPO--building our sales culture and working together to build shareholder value. Chapter 2 was about making investments for our future in what was a very chaotic market in 2005. These chapters were about putting strong financial and cultural building blocks in place at Willis and now that we've got those we're looking ahead to taking Willis from a good, distinctive company to a great company, with breakout growth and performance.

Q: You've been outspoken on contingency payments and Willis was the first to cease accepting them, but Marsh, Aon and Willis have revised their agreements so they can accept payments as managing general agents. Not everybody understands the distinction. How have you explained this to clients?

We haven't had any questions about whether we've changed our stance at all. I've been on record as saying, even when I gave my RIMS speech a couple years ago, as long as you tell people who you represent, that's fine. My issue is the conflict that you have while representing one person and getting paid by somebody else.... By the way, I am on record as being against them before Spitzer. I thought they were props in the industry, and people said, "Why didn't you give them up then?" Because I would've put my company at a competitive disadvantage if I did.

We need to embrace the client/broker relationship in such a way where my sole form of compensation and growth comes from how you the client evaluate me. If that breaks down and I'm getting paid all over the place, I am never going to break my back to be creative, imaginative and work really hard to make sure I do a great job for you.... That's the fabric of why I don't like them, because it breaks down where the relationship should be. That stifles creativity and stunts growth in the industry.