Willis' acquisition of Goldman Insurance Services/Risk Management in San Francisco last month marked the beginning of a major expansion strategy.

Since Joe Plumeri was appointed chairman and chief ...

Willis' acquisition of Goldman Insurance Services/Risk Management in San Francisco last month marked the beginning of a major expansion strategy.

Since Joe Plumeri was appointed chairman and chief executive of Willis in October 2000, the Italian-American has hinted his company will grow. Now he has embarked on a programme to purchase "insurance brokers wherever we find it fits our strategy".

Willis clearly intends to compete with rivals Aon and Marsh & McLennan. In 2000, the brokers had fee and commission incomes of £548m and £507m respectively, compared to Willis' figure of £315.6m.

Lloyds TSB Insurance is the third largest global broker at £440.9m, leaving Willis in fourth place. Yet rather than join forces with Jardine Lloyd Thompson - the next biggest with an income of £287.3m - Plumeri is implementing the American way of thinking to tackle the opposition.

Instead of backing Bermudan insurance and reinsurance start-ups like Marsh and Aon, Plumeri wants to concentrate only on its core business.

He says: "All we want to do is be very good brokers, not underwriters. So many companies get distracted and do not know what they are."

Since Plumeri took over, the company has changed radically. Willis has gone public and shares are up by more than 70%. It has also made two public offerings in five months.

The new Willis has also altered internally, with American culture dominating. Plumeri is battling to create a sense of unity and pride within the organisation and has created "Good Morning, Willis", an intranet which lists the company's share price, daily news and welcomes new recruits.

When he first joined, Plumeri also designed a company lapel badge in the shape of a flag for employees to wear.

"The reason I did that was because there was no vision for the company," he explains. "When there is no vision and people do not know where they are going, there is a tendency for every department to do their own thing.

"You can never be great if you are operating as an individual entity and not as a company."

Plumeri says staff have welcomed the changes.

"As an American, maybe my ideas are a bit different," he says. "But to be greeted as warmly as I have is a terrific feeling."

He says he is approaching his concept of "one dream and one team".

"In the beginning, not many people wore the flags," he says.

"Now I am finding more people with them on when they do not know I am coming."

Happy family
Some employees have found the happy family concept and identification tags difficult to deal with. When the pins were first introduced, a handful of brokers got together and gave the badges to people sleeping on the streets.

Other plans have also been difficult to carry out. In March, Plumeri put Willis' Ten Trinity Square headquarters up for sale.

Plumeri says he now has "three potential bona fide buyers" and hopes to move into a new office, so all London staff can communicate easily "under one roof" in three years' time.

But while Marsh is building a slick high-tech home across the road, Willis is finding it hard to find suitable accommodation.

Other goals have been more obtainable. Willis' revenues are up 11% compared to 7% last year, debt has dropped from $1.2bn to under $800m and the broker's market capitalisation is now more than $3.5bn.

Plumeri has also reduced company expenses by $30m by "eliminating waste" and restructuring departments.

So far, Willis has avoided any lay-offs. In 2001 it recruited 650 UK employees. This was the largest number of new staff taken on in a single year since 1995, with the exception of 1998 when 758 people joined the company.

What will the future hold? Plumeri says the economy "directionally" appears to be going towards a recession, but says he is confident the market will remain hard "certainly for more than two to three years".

"Insurance broking before 11 September was necessary," he says. "Now it is prominent and people appreciate the need for it more than ever before.

"This is a good time to be in the business."

The rise of Willis
1828 - Henry Willis & Co. established
1843 - Dumas & Wylie established
1886 - Faber Brothers established
1898 - Willis, Faber & Co. formed by merger
1905 - RA Corroon & Co. established
1928 - Willis Faber & Dumas formed by merger
1963 - Corroon & Black Corp. formed by merger
1976 - Willis Faber listed on stock exchange
1990 - Willis Corroon Group formed by merger
1998 - Willis Corroon Group acquired by Trinity Acquisition
1999 - The Group's operations are amalgamated under one name: Willis Group
2001 - Willis Group Limited listed on the New York Stock Exchange