Five months after taking over the reins, US banker Joe Plumeri has shaken up Willis with his open attitude and go-getting approach....
It's 7.30am and on a typical day Joe Plumeri will have had at least two meetings already. The new chairman of the world's third biggest insurance broker doesn't shy away from early mornings. And he's definitely not the retiring type, either.
Taking on a new leadership role after a successful 32-year career with America's Citigroup was certainly a bold move. Now five-and-a-half months into the job, he sits comfortably in his new office.
“The staff have really welcomed me and have a willingness to absorb new ideas,” he enthuses. “Their acceptance of me has been phenomenal.”
Plumeri has now visited most of the group's international offices and says he has “been around the world twice – literally”. He complains he can't sleep on the plane. Given that his average working day ends at 10pm, you wonder when he ever does.
Since the energetic Italian American became chairman and chief executive officer in October, staff have seen Willis rapidly evolve. With 20 handwritten notes of appreciation a day to employees, an open-door policy and an “Email with Joe” scheme to encourage staff to talk to him directly, Plumeri is trying to create the feeling that they're all working in one big, happy family.
But the family is growing so rapidly that old customs are being thrown to the wind. For a start, the 57-year-old has outlined plans to bring his 1,300 London staff under one roof and is putting Willis's main office on the market after Easter. He estimates it will take three years to sell the Port of London Authority's former headquarters at Ten Trinity Square.
“There is a very rich sense of tradition in Willis, but you can't live by it. You must build on it,” he explains. “This building is beautiful, but it does not suit our purposes.
“As it is old, it is not efficient and doesn't allow interaction. We can't reconfigure it, as it is a landmark, but we need to let people see and talk to each other.”
And the number of people who need to see and talk to each other looks set to increase. In the past few months, Willis has taken over the leading insurance brokers in Northern Ireland, Australia and Columbia. More purchases are on the cards.
“We are already global, so it is difficult to expand,” Plumeri says. “We are in enough places, but we are definitely going to be acquiring more (businesses).”
Selling parts of the group is not an option. Plumeri will only dispose of any business if it is in a remote country or “a hobby and not part of the core strategy”.
At the same time, he plans to focus more on overseas opportunities. He believes that the US, where Willis conducts 30% to 35% of its deals, is a particular target for growth. Despite the current slow-down, it still accounts for half the world market in insurance.
“Relatively speaking, we can do more in that market,” he believes. “This is a company that is a global broker. We have the size and resources to build on our business.”
Plumeri eschews the notion that Willis could be sold before his plans come to fruition.
Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), which purchased Willis two years ago, is not known for holding on to its companies.
However, Plumeri says emphatically: “I am not a person that comes into a company and sells it on. I am a builder, not a discarder. It is not KKR's intention to sell, and I did not take on that responsibility with them.”
He does admit, though, that going public is a possibility.
So how does he plan to compete with the two market leaders?
“We have a different model to Aon and Marsh,” he says. “We do business with people on a personal level, in the way small companies do.”
Rumour has it that Willis is looking to join forces with the world's sixth largest broker, Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT). Plumeri dismisses this as “poppycock” and says he has no intention of merging with JLT “or anyone”.
In the five years he spent as head of Citigroup's 450 North American retail bank branches, profits rocketed by 50%. He intends to bring about similar results here.
“We want to increase our profits by 20% a year,” he says optimistically. “That would be effectively doubling our profits every five years.”
Plumeri, who has been married for 35 years and has three grown children, believes his sense of optimism comes from his forebears.
“My father always found a positive spin on things,” he reminisces. “Even in his eighties, he would lay out his clothes at night so he could get dressed and go to work the next day. It symbolically meant he was excited to get up in the morning.”
And does Plumeri go through a similar ritual every evening? “Yes, I do it myself,” he says. “No matter how tired I am.”
Although he resembles his father in looks, it is his grandfather, another Joseph Plumeri, who influenced his personality. The first Plumeri was an Italian immigrant to America and became a crowd pleaser in his adopted land.
“He was an entrepreneur, and in the 1920s got together Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to barnstorm round the US. They were both famous for hitting home runs, and he promoted them to thousands of people.”
Plumeri's background has also made an impact on the way he looks at the world. His family now co-owns the Trenton Thunder baseball team, a league franchise associated with the Boston Red Sox.
“My grandfather died when I was very young, but I can still remember him telling me about how difficult it was to be accepted.
“I listened carefully. I grew up in a neighbourhood with different ethnic groups and cultures. I never saw colour or ethnic differences, I just saw people.”
Prejudice now takes on different labels, he continues, and fighting racism is one of his main concerns. He has created a diversity council at Willis to prevent discrimination.
“In any company, people should advance because of the way they perform, not as a result of where they come from or what they look like,” he explains. “Most people spend more time in the office than anywhere else, so you have to make them look forward to coming in.”
For Plumeri himself, the greatest motivation is the desire to make his mark.
“I want people to look back in five years' time and recognise the things I've done,” he says. “The question is, how long will I be here?