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Chris Mayo on Willis Towers Watson’s Strategy in Global Employee Benefits

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Chris Mayo – Head of Global Services & Solutions, Non-North America,Willis Towers Watson

Global Benefits Vision: Tell us about your career in Global Employee Benefits.

Christopher Mayo: I have been involved with international employee benefits since 1990, when I was one of four people who set up the international practice at R. Watson & Sons. In 1995 I had the opportunity to work in Milan. That was at the time that R. Watson & Sons and merged with The Wyatt Company and I took on a role where I was a local consultant receiving instructions and requests from both our international consultant colleagues and our clients’ headquarters. In 1997, I rejoined the international practice within Watson Wyatt, and in 2002 I relocated to London and led the international team based there. I’ve effectively worked in London ever since. In 2006 I took on leadership of the whole of the Watson Wyatt International Consulting Group, initially just in the U.K., but from 2006 through 2010 we started the process to grow our footprint.

In 2010, when Towers Watson was formed, I took on the leadership of the international consulting group across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Between 2010 and 2015 we expanded to now cover the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden and Switzerland. And now, in my new role in 2016, I am to be Head of Willis Towers Watson Global Services and Solutions Group (GSS), for all markets outside of North America. This therefore covers the markets of Great Britain, Western Europe, Asia, Australasia, and Latin America.

When I joined R. Watson and Sons back in 1988 there were about 350 people in the company, so I knew most of them and they knew me. Now, I work with 39,000 colleagues!

I am responsible for around 140 colleagues who are focused exclusively on servicing the needs of the headquarters of our multinational clients. My colleagues are in the main locations I described before, plus now Denmark, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Tokyo, Melbourne, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo.

GBV: And how many are in the U.S. part of the Global Employee Benefits Division?

CM: There are approximately 145 in the major cities, and therefore about 275 in total within the GSS globally.

GBV: What services does Willis Towers Watson provide today?

CM: Willis Towers Watson is a multidisciplinary service firm offering a broad spectrum of services on an integrated basis. We have four segments and are putting those segments on equal footing. The four segments cover Corporate Risk & Broking, Human Capital & Benefits, Investment Risk and Reinsurance and Exchange Solutions.

One key change we made in constructing Willis Towers Watson was to take the employee benefit brokerage capabilities that Willis had and put that into our Human Capital and Benefits segment. Therefore within one segment we provide end-to-end services, in the benefits arena – covering benefits consulting as well as benefits placement.

While our competitors are perhaps keeping their insurance divisions a little distant from their consulting side, we are looking to create integrated services for our clients,. And that’s quite a differentiator.

This is a challenge, because some of the brokerage activity is quite different from the consulting activity. But I have to say, seven months in, that I think we will make a success of this. Willis and Towers Watson were of roughly equal size, so neither one dominates the other. We are quite determined to make sure we serve the clients’ best interest.

GBV: Please tell our readers about the other three segments that make up the company.

CM: The second part is Corporate Risk and Broking, effectively property and casualty, and other lines of traditional broking and advisory services around that. This is essentially advice around insurance program construction and placement. So the brokerage practice is a discipline in itself now, but the actual construction of programs, and all the advisory work around that, is distinct. And all of that sits within one Segment.

The third Segment is Exchange Solutions, which is focused on providing a market place where customers (in our case, the employees, retirees and dependants of our clients) can shop for benefits, whether medical or other in-service benefits.

The last Segement is Investment, Risk, and Reinsurance. At one level they are quite different, but they have some commonalities. Our investment consulting services cover- pension funds, wealth management and wealth institutions. The second part is around risk, which is really the risk consulting and software business that legacy Towers Watson had; this encompasses consulting services and software principally for insurance companies around the world. The last part is the reinsurance capabilities, which come from legacy Willis in the London markets and elsewhere.

GBV: Could you describe your assets and focus on human capital and benefits, your relationships with insurance carriers, and the countries you’re in?

CM: I think one of the key strengths of Willis Towers Watson is that it’s broad-based and evenly split between the different business segments.

We have the largest wholly-owned network of offices around the world. The number of locations we are in is slightly higher than that offered by either of our major competitors, AON or Marsh. In total, our number of local offices is in the high 80s, with correspondent partners in another 40 or so countries. This allows us to effectively service clients in more than 120 countries on a fully integrated basis. Our correspondents cover the markets where Willis Towers Watson isn’t present—not on an arm’s length basis. We have strong protocols with those local foreign correspondents, so they are effectively delivering the same service level and the same service standards.

In terms of some of the key assets, Willis Towers Watson has strong technology investments. One of the key things we have is a leading HR software called Talent and Reward, which is used by a number of multinationals for such things as global grading, pay management, and performance management. There are nine career management modules within that suite that are market leading and are used by clients to bolt into existing SAP and Oracle systems, for example.


Another key asset is Investment Consulting, where we have huge market research capabilities and deliver investment advice and capability to wealth funds and institutions like insurance companies and pension funds.

In constructing Towers Watson we had the opportunity to define a new firm. Having been in R Watson and Sons and seeing how we combined R Watson and The Wyatt Company, and also having seen how we created Towers Watson, I recognize the opportunity for “refreshment” that comes with combining two firms. It’s a very exciting challenge, because it gives us the chance to define a new organization in a way that goes beyond the brand or the logo. I see lots of energy in these past seven months. Defining a new organization and a new way of working and a new chance to deliver differently to our clients is a key asset for us. Because we’ve been through this process before, I can speak for a large number of colleagues who are up for this change. We’ve been through it before, we know what it’s like, and we welcome the chance to refresh ourselves and that is another key strength, I believe.

GBV: How does that affect your relationships with carriers?

CM: That’s a good question. Towers Watson has historically had, on the HR employee benefits side, quite an arm’s-length relationship with the carriers; they have been a resource that can be used for the benefit of our clients. It’s only been in the latter part of Towers Watson’s ambition to create its own global benefits brokerage network that we have started to change the nature of our relationship to one where we can better understand them and their capabilities, and help them try to translate that in partnership to provide better value for our clients. And of course on the legacy Towers Watson side, from an insurance carrier’s perspective, some of these organizations were clients of our risk consulting business. That relationship is very arm’s-length, as opposed to the HR employee benefits relationship.

I think what’s changed, of course, is that Willis comes with a very strong connectivity to the carrier side. Now the nature of the whole Willis Towers Watson relationship is changing, to be more cognizant of the nature of those relationships. Again, we’re very focused on servicing our clients andmaking sure we get the best for our clients. But the best for our clients is a very strong partnership, not just with the clients but also with any carriers that are helping to bear risk with those organizations. Thus, from my perspective we certainly do have a changing nature in the consulting insurance industry.

GBV: Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

CM: The desire of the company is to be an integrated professional services firm where each of those segments stands on an equal footing. It’s critical to the success of creating such an integrated firm to make sure that we work consistently around the world, and that we deliver consistently for our multinational clients.

And so the company has set up a group called Global Services and Solutions with that mission—to first of all deliver consistent service around the world for our multinational clients, and to meet and exceed their expectations, but also as a byproduct of that, to help be a change agent or a support to help Willis Towers Watson become a single-service integrated firm. We’ll deliver the second by doing the first effectively, by servicing our clients.

To help orientate you, the GSS group will be made up of the old international consulting group from legacy Towers Watson plus the multinational practice from legacy Willis, both of which were focused on the human capital and benefits (HCB) part of our business. But the ambitions of Willis Towers Watson go beyond the HCB for global services and solutions, so GSS will cover both the HCB and the corporate risk and broking services that we deliver for clients. At this point in time we’re focused principally on building out those capabilities on the HCB side, but we’re also working on defining and agreeing internally on how GSS can support the corporate risk and broking. So we will eventually have international teams to support the CRB business as well.

GBV: Did you define a vision/mission phrase for GSS?

CM: Yes. “To ensure that the integrated company delivers to the global needs of multinational clients.”

GBV: What’s the overall vision for your organization in global benefits?

CM: To give you some context, two or three years before the merger, Towers Watson recognized that our clients faced huge problems with pension and pension liabilities. Clients are still looking for cost savings and efficiency in this economic environment, and HR is one area where we see them focusing, and looking to introduce technology to support HR operations. So we talked about the Talent Reward software that Willis Towers Watson offers.

That technology has consequences too; it’s changing the form of HR, and we know that has an impact on the resources HR has on a local level. So TW started on a journey to look at how we can improve the delivery of benefits at the local level to support clients in this changing environment. We’ve built technology, which comes from some of our DNA on the pension side; we have a huge database that allows us to manage data for pension records. We’ve adapted this technology to cover the insurance world.

In bringing some of that technology to the market we were looking to disrupt the market in this sort-of-traditional area of insurance broking. I really wanted to try to continue the HR journey of using greater technology to make processes more efficient. Coupled with that, we want to start to use the strength of Willis Towers Watson on the local level to take on some of the roles that the client might not be able to handle because of reductions in head count in its HR function at the local level.

So we approach the whole benefits area from a technology perspective with a view of creating a network where we can support clients by taking on additional services. And the byproducts of that, to some extent, are gaining better financial control and oversight, and better employee appreciation as a consequence.

So that was the vision Towers Watson started out with. Willis is a fantastic fit for us because we have access to a network of local workers that help support that delivery. Somewhat fortuitously, Willis did not have some of the technology on the local level, and so Willis Towers Watson can stand proudly with our technology vision and rollout.

The technology is really welcome to our local brokers because it is designed to make reporting information back to their headquarters more efficient. Our vision is to help our clients deliver more efficient execution with greater knowledge, better financial control, and better outcomes for their employees.

GBV: Will you go as far as offering BPO services?

CM: At the moment the focus is on the insured and insurable benefits services. So we’re looking to make that process as efficient as possible. We also use the technology to go a step further, to allow clients access to a marketplace that is a bit like an Amazon store, where they can go in and pick and choose from a list of choices at the employer level, and then their employees can pick and choose within those choices. So I think we want to BPO this whole HR and employee benefits (EB) space, but at this point we want to focus on offering EB services and doing them well. We are less concerned with taking on some of the other elements of the HR-outsourced space. We want to stay focused on the basics of employee benefits and make sure that discipline is as efficient and effective as possible.

GBV: There is certainly a big difference between consulting and BPO. It’s a different world.

CM: Yes, and that’s a good point, in the sense that we aspire to use technology to ensure we’re doing the basics well, which frees up the consultants to still add a consulting piece. Our clients still value the consulting piece, but they still want the managing information to be effective on the consulting side of things. So it’s not about a total BPO-type thing, where it’s just pushed out and forgotten. We need the consulting and the routine stuff to be hand-in-hand.

GBV: How will you get there? What are the next steps?

CM: The technology comprises three components, and our strategy is to roll it out in two directions: into our own organization, so the benefits broker platform will be used by all of our EB brokers, and then to take management information that comes from the technology and feed it to our clients through a portal we will be rolling out in the latter part of this year. We also will allow employees to make choices around those benefits; that’s the marketplace part. That will be available more formally starting next year.

We also want to create within Willis Towers Watson a truly engaged network of local brokers who are focused not just on delivering the day-to-day administrative tasks associated with their contracts, but also on ensuring they are supporting their global clients. That’s a culture that existed in legacy Willis and legacy Towers Watson, so we are more about bringing it all together to make people see how they contribute to the overall picture. That’s still a work in progress, as we build Willis Towers Watson.

GBV: How does the GSS strategy fit with the rest of the components in terms of Willis Towers Watson’s overall strategy?

CM: We are aligning ourselves to our segments. So GSS has people who are skilled at the retirement part, and supporting multinationals across that; we have people who support the health and benefits part; we have people who support mergers and acquisitions, so they coordinate across geographies to support those. The aim is to have multidisciplinary consultants within GSS, to not distinguish between retirement and health and benefits. That’s one key differentiator in how we attract and retain people, by not creating distinctions among the different services, so colleagues can get involved in different elements. We hope to include Corporate Risk and Broking skills within GSS one day. There’s no reason people can’t switch over and support some of those projects as well.

You see, at its core, what GSS is all about is effective project management across multiple countries, plus expert advice. We can’t all be experts in all of those areas, so you may major in “expertise,” but you still can run projects across multiple countries. The key for GSS is to be able to run these projects effectively and deliver expert knowledge to the client. That’s how we add value to the overall strategy, particularly regarding employee benefits.

GBV: Let’s switch to a favorite topic of ours: SMEs, SMBs, smaller companies. Certainly Towers Watson was associated with serving very large organizations. Can you comment on the mid-market?

CM: Yes, and that’s an excellent point. From a GSS perspective, we are quite expert at handling any inquiry, no matter the size. If you were to stereotype Towers Watson as focused on larger organizations, you might say Willis was focused on the mid-market before the merger. Now, I am quite surprised that Willis is engaged with some of our largest clients, so it is more integrated into the larger market than was my perception. It brings a particular skill to service small or medium-sized organizations, and I think it’s incumbent on Willis Towers Watson to take advantage of that knowledge and skill. But it’s also incumbent on us to try to tailor our services for the size and ability of the organization. So we are spending time packaging and presenting services that are deliberately targeted to the small and medium-sized enterprises. We’re trying to make sure we deliver the same sort of value but also recognize that their internal capability to take on ideas and execute on them, may be different. So it’s not just a case of taking a large proposition and skinning it down for a small or medium enterprise. It’s about looking at it completely afresh and designing something that can really work for that client.

It may need to be more transactional-based or more about handling the operational piece while the consulting piece is more tailored toward the bandwidth and the capabilities of the organization. We are working on developing a number of propositions, much more internal to Willis Towers Watson, to help us when we go to a small or mid-sized enterprise. It helps us with our thinking, so we don’t hit them with an inappropriate service proposition, but instead have something suited to their size and scale. It’s not about saying, “Here’s this package, take it or leave it.” It’s more about positioning ourselves to start in the right place.

GBV: If I understand correctly, you are going to introduce products for this segment into the market?

CM: We are designing services—and we have some capabilities already—to help us better service this market. We always start from the point of wanting to do the right thing for our clients, so something off the shelf is never going to work. So the purpose of these packages is to help us start from a more appropriate place from which to then tailor to each client.

GBV: How will you continue to attract talent to Willis Towers Watson in the future?

CM: One reason people are attracted to Willis Towers Watson is that we have been very fortunate in growing our presence by acquisition—and that provides a fresh opportunity to look at the market. One thing that outside organizations find attractive about GSS is that we have a single group of people with multidisciplinary skills. People are not labeled as fitting in one bucket and not being able to do other things. We give them the freedom to take their careers in a variety of directions, as they so choose. That flexibility, combined with the ability to work with some of the largest organizations in the world, is the key reason people want to join Willis Towers Watson.

GBV: Does GSS hire people who are suited for international work externally, or do you try to attract people from inside other parts of Willis Towers Watson and then train them for the more international aspects of employee benefits?

CM: Both. If you put me against the wall and asked me to choose, I would prefer the internal route, because it’s slightly less risky in the sense that we can help coach you. But we have hired externally quite significantly in the past for senior roles, and we continue to do that where it makes sense. So both routes are important. It’s almost irrelevant where a person comes from; it’s all the same development opportunities, and the chance to train and develop are the same for both paths. So perhaps turning it around, it’s the constant opportunities to develop and learn that are key to our development of talent, irrespective of past history.

GBV: To get a sense of numbers, how many people do you hire for GSS on an annual basis?

CM: For turnover we are at about 8% globally. I am quite proud to say that generally, in GSS, there is very little turnover. If any of our colleagues leave, it’s generally to go to a client. We also have turnover from GSS into our organization; some of the senior people in our business have come from GSS—people like Paul Morris, who heads our Western European region; Simon Gilliat, who heads the Central and Eastern European and Middle East and Africa regions; Cecil Hemingway, who heads our Health and Benefits globally outside North America. So we have turnover in that sense as well. We continue to hire externally for graduates and junior people coming in; at the mid-level it’s sort of 50-50 internal and external; and at the senior level, it’s external, because they have specific skills that we need that are hard to find in our organization.

GBV: So you’re talking about roughly 10 people per year joining GSS?

CM: Yes, that’s correct.

GBV: What, in your opinion, are the main challenges to our industry today?

CM: If you look at the outside world you’ve got companies like Uber, LinkedIn etc creating the this connected world that exists out there. But employee benefits is still quite a disconnected world. The only connecting pieces are the three major providers: AON, Marsh, and Willis Towers Watson. The reality is that insurance companies are different around the world; their networks are not as comprehensive as those of the intermediaries and technology is still not as prevalent in our industry as in others. So I think that the 10-15-year horizon challenge is how do we, as an industry, get that disparate nature more aligned given the direction of the other parts of our world and the expectations that follow. I think the question is, how do we deliver this more consistently around the world for our multinational clients?

Obviously, I’m focused on the multinationals, so that’s how I see the challenge. Given the nature of the insurance companies and the fact that we have huge amounts of capital required to set up a presence in the market, it’s very hard for insurance companies to fill that gap unilaterally around the world. So it is probably going to fall to the intermediaries to fill that gap and make up the difference. That will make it look to the international buyer like this is one global program or one purchase, even though in practice it is fragmented into several local countries’ solutions placed locally to meet with the regulatory requirements that exist around the world. That’s the challenge: how do we make it feel like LinkedIn or Uber for our multinational clients who have that expectation when the reality is really far from that?

GBV: So it will be interesting to follow the market acceptance of Zurich’s new product, the international program for employee benefits, and certainly also all the networks that provide pooling services that should perform essentially the same service but have not been very successful in terms of market penetration.

CM: Yeah, I think pooling still plays a part. It shouldn’t be forgotten in the armory. But delivering pooling is pretty much the same as the technology, the reporting, the placement perspective. It is pretty much the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago.

GBV: Even 50 years ago.

CM: Exactly so. I’m not having a dig at the insurers; I know it’s structurally hard for them to deliver that. But I feel that it’s incumbent on what was traditionally the consulting space to change the nature of its role by adding placement services, which is what the new Willis Towers Watson combination is all about. Now making a success of that is going to be critical.

There are many players out there, but I think we are all aspiring to a better and simpler world for our multinational clients.

GBV: How do you see the industry changing?

CM: Looking at the economic situation, it looks like it will be tough for companies to continue the modest growth that has been achieved recently. So they are probably tangentially starting to go around another cycle of cost control or doing whatever is necessary for revenue growth. And so I think our clients will again turn to us for more efficiency and greater control of costs. It’s a cycle we’ve been around before and I think it will be a key focus in 2016-2017. We will be responsible, as consultants and intermediaries, as well as insurancers, to look for those further efficiencies. I think technology will play a part in this but I don’t think it’s going to move the dial tremendously in the 2016-2017 timeframe.

GBV: How about the trends on the distant horizon?

CM: I think the client trend is towards an increasing focus on other areas of employee benefits spend than pensions and insurance, as well as looking to address employee engagement and to increase choice for employees. Flexible work and a flexible environment are the way to retain individuals, so that’s the employee side. The employer side is all about short-term cost and cost control, as well as growing market share. That means greater expansion, so many of our smaller multinationals are looking to go abroad in more locations.

I didn’t join the international team in 1990 as a strategic play; it was more from a personal interest perspective. But I couldn’t have made a better choice in terms of a long-term direction. Our world is going to continue to expand; our clients are going to become increasingly multinational. It’s the only way they will survive. Being in the thick of that is a great place to be, and I see that trend continuing for many years.

The employer side is constantly going through expansion and cost control; the employee side is more about choice and opportunity, even in consumption of employee benefits. On the insurer’s side and the intermediary side, it is about how we respond to those pressures and those requests from our clients. That plays partly to technology, partly to smarter working and partly to increased geographical mix, so that we can deliver the client experience, whether it’s in Poland or Portugal. It’s the ability to deliver consistently around the world, and technology plays a part in that.

GBV: What specifically is your organization’s plan regarding the Willis Towers Watson post-merger integration process?

CM: The goal is to achieve an integrated services firm. We are taking our time to ensure that all decisions support this mission. This includes careful decisions around all systems and tools that support servicing our global clients, including technology platforms, HR and reward programs, and other common systems.

GBV: What are your medium-and long-term priorities in your new role?

CM: My focus is to ensure that Global Services and Solutions first delivers for our multinational clients and second supports the construction of an integrated services firm. My medium-term priorities are to ensure we have the geographical presence and internal relationships that allow GSS to support multinational clients, wherever they are headquartered. I also aim to ensure that we build a strong and effective GSS component to support our Corporate Risk & Broking services.

GBV: What are the biggest challenges you think you will be facing at your organization and in the industry in general?

CM: To manage all of the opportunities from clients in such a way that we build a strong and sustainable team that delivers exemplary services to each of our multinational clients.

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