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Willis CEO deserving of industry accolades


Hats off to Joe Plumeri.

As the 2007 Insurance Leader of the Year, named by the St. John's University School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science, the chairman and chief executive officer of Willis Group Holdings Ltd. delivered a rousing speech in New York last week.

Mr. Plumeri is famous for high-energy presentations to Willis associates, but many insurance industry leaders may have witnessed his style for the first time at last week's award dinner.

What the more than 1,400 people who attended this year--a record for the event--heard was an emotional, impassioned speech by a man who has shaken up the industry in little more than six years at the helm of the world's third-largest brokerage. When told he was the award recipient, Mr. Plumeri joked that St. John's was "working from the wrong list."

Past honorees include Maurice R. Greenberg, Patrick G. Ryan, John T. Sinnott, Jack Byrne, Brian Duperreault, Ronald Ferguson and Robert Clements.

Mixing humorous and serious messages, Mr. Plumeri at times pounded his fist to emphasize his points. Key among them was that the insurance industry lacks self-esteem and gets a bad reputation because of it. He contended that the industry ought to be proud of the important role it plays in rebuilding lives and businesses and allowing people to continue their dreams, even after havoc strikes.

After a 30-plus-year career in banking and financial services, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. tapped Mr. Plumeri to run Willis, which KKR had taken private in the late 1990s. Mr. Plumeri joined the brokerage in late 2000 and set about building a culture of loyalty and entrepreneurship, with a style quite different from that to which the London-based company had been accustomed.

Mr. Plumeri's leadership certainly has made KKR and other shareholders happy: From an initial public offering in 2001 that netted $3 a share, Willis today trades at nearly $40. He reduced debt and expenses and continues to grow the company's top line. In short, Joe Plumeri and the management team he inherited have turned Willis from a quiet, buttoned-down broker into a fast-moving company that is completely committed to changing the status quo.

Interrupted by applause throughout last Wednesday's speech, the loudest cheers came as Mr. Plumeri chided the media for not reporting all the good the industry does. Overshadowed by stories of claim denials and coverage disputes following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina are the unreported instances of heroics and how much insurers pay out to help communities recover, he said.

As a journalist, it's true that many reporters focus on conflict and controversy, even though those may be isolated incidents. News can be defined as what's different, not what occurs with regularity. Even so, Mr. Plumeri's point about the insurance industry not receiving credit and "good press" for what it does struck a chord.

Have a story about how the industry helped make a difference in a community and touched lives following a loss? Send them to me at and I'll include several of them in an upcoming column. The insurance industry does far more good every day than the headlines about a few bad apples or coverage lawsuits might suggest. It's a fact worth celebrating.