UPDATED(August 2018): Q&A with Michael Burwell, CFO

Michael Burwell Interview

UPDATE AUGUST 2018: Keep up to date with Michael Burwell’s latest blogs on Medium: https://medium.com/@michaelburwell

 

Michael Burwell is the Chief Financial Officer of the advisory and consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. Burwell joined Willis Tower Watson at the end of 2017 when the former CFO, Roger Military, took his retirement. Between is three decades of industry experience, his education, as well as being a CPA give him a unique set of skills that will prove invaluable to Willow Tower Watson well into the future. With an emphasis on expanding the reach and services offered by the company, they are slated to play an even greater role in the industry.

He received his education from Michigan State University before entering the workforce. He was awarded the Alumnus of the Year award from his alma mater in 2010. Michael Burwell spent over 30 years at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, LLC. He served in a variety of crucial roles at PwC, including 11 years working in business advisory services before being made partner at the firm. He was tasked with overseeing the transaction business for the US – a huge responsibility he took on with ease. His success at with the Denver branch of PwC made him a natural choice for bigger responsibilities and more important roles within the company.

His success in these efforts led him to being named Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer at PwC before he took his current position at Willis Towers Watson. After serving in these key roles, Burwell was named Vice Chairman Global and U.S. Transformation, giving him an international position. At this position, Michael Burwell was tasked with helping to expand the internal services offered by PwC and also assisted with valuable issues like pre-merger valuation and other related issues, providing incredibly important analysis and advice for a variety of types of client.

How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?

A good idea and the confidence to see it through. In order to be successful in any endeavor you undertake, you have to be confident in your skill and ability to see it through. You have to maintain that level of positivity and be relentless in your pursuit of your goals. It means that you will have to accept some degree of failure, but this is ultimately the key to being successful in what you do.

What does a typical “day-in-the-life” of Michael Burwell look like?

I always get up early, no matter what, even when I travel. So a typical day for me starts around 5 am. Getting up early, even when on vacation or traveling helps me stay focused and allows me to feel a sense of accomplishment for keeping with this schedule. Exercise is important to the mind and body. I try to get on my bike in the morning, and if I’m out of town, I try to find some type of activity that lets me keep on this. When I’m riding, I plan out my day, think about the tasks and potential difficulties that may face me, and think through how I will get everything I need to get done accomplished. Sometimes I plan for the day ahead, others for the next week or even month. It is important to be prepared.

How do you make money?

One of my key strategies is efficiency. How can we do more with less? With this frame of mind, you work from an efficient starting point, which will ultimately lead to an improvement in the bottom line.

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

Again, as with how I make money, profit is not something you get and then just have. You can lose capital and value just as easily as you can earn it. In fact, in a lot of ways it is much easier to lose it than it is to earn it. You just have to learn from your experiences and take the lessons as they are provided to you. With experience and an understanding of your industry, you can make smart decisions about risk and business operations that will lead to profitability.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

I think everyone has moments of doubt. When I was first starting out, I was on the leading edge of a new technology that we had poured millions into. I made the decision to stop the effort, which was not something that made my colleagues happy, but when I looked at where the market was going, it was best to just take the loss. Some people may view this as a failure and it was an unpopular decision, but I stand by it being the correct one.

How did you get your first customer?

A lot of patience and diligence. It doesn’t happen overnight and you have to be committed to the long-haul. If you keep your eyes on the future and maintain optimism in what you are doing, that first customer will appear.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

You have to network and build relationships. That might sound a bit like an antiquated idea, but it is vitally important to your success. No one person can do it alone, so have a network of skilled and talented people who have the skills you don’t is incredibly valuable, no matter what business you are working in. You can never develop too many relationships in business and you can’t be unwilling to offer advice and assistance in return.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

I think the toughest decision to make in any business is what kind of risk is worth taking and when an idea has had it’s chance, but doesn’t really pan out in practice. It can be incredibly difficult to can a project that you’ve invested in and put a lot of work into, but sometimes that is the best possible decision you can make.

Recently I was involved with an effort that was in the process of developing a new technology that seemed to have a lot of promise. The team put a lot of time and effort into it and we had even expended capital in the process. However, along that way when I started to look at the market trends, I just couldn’t see the project ultimately being a success, so I made the difficult decision to stop the project. As you can imagine, the decision was not a popular one, as many people had put in time and effort to see it to fruition, but given what I saw at the time, it was the best decision to make. It is incredibly difficult to pull out of a project you have put a lot of work into, but you have to be able to know when to cut your losses and move on.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I’d say it would be a combination of having confidence in my abilities and the decisions I make. But it also has a lot to do with diligence. I’m relentless, I put in the work it takes to get the job done and I feel that they have served me well in my career. I am always trying to think about efficiency – how to do more with less. It seems to me that this is one of the most important areas in any field and especially given the drive of technology and competition, you have to find a way to stay ahead of that proverbial crowd. I like to take advantage of apps that help me to be more organized and productive, that help me stay in this mindset, and I share them with others so as to help them as well.

It’s also incredibly important to maintain your drive towards your goals and stay positive. If you don’t think that something can be successful, you are setting yourself up for failure. Maintaining a positive outlook, learning from and then shrugging off the failures, is part and parcel to keeping the mindset you need to be able to succeed and thrive. You need to celebrate and honor your wins and your successes. Achieving a goal, no matter how small, is a goal achieved and it should be seen as such. I make it a point to celebrate my and my employees goals, no matter how small they might seem. It boosts morale and helps people to be more confident in their abilities.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

I’ve had many satisfying moments. When a collaborative effort comes together as it is supposed to, that is one of the most rewarding feelings you can have in the world of business. It is incredibly satisfying to face down something that, at first, seems like an insurmountable problem, only to come out successful on the other side.

Can you tell us about something in your career that you are most proud of?

I am proud of a number of things that I have managed to accomplish and this is a very good question. I think it is important to reflect on the things we have managed to make successes of and celebrate them. One thing that makes me incredibly proud is that four people that I have helped to guide and mentor in the field have all become partners at one of my previous firms. It is so rewarding to think that I may have helped them, in some small way, of reaching the pinnacle of their careers.

 

I am also very proud of the times that I have been able to really help improve the efficiency of an organization, resulting in an increase in the bottom line as well. As the CFO of a professional services firm, I was able to oversee the elimination of some $500 million costs, without having to lay off a single employee. This savings did not involve the elimination of any positions or reductions in staff and of this, I am incredibly proud.

 

Additionally, I also helped with the negotiation on a deal with Google that I am incredibly pleased with. I helped to create a unique partnership for Google that helps them to enhance user experience, get the best and brightest minds into the company, and to retain them into the future. It is also nice to see a company that is forward-thinking and this partnership with Google makes a lot of exciting things possible for the future.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

I’m very interested to see what the future holes for the B to C marketplace. InsureTech has some interesting ideas that are starting to gain ground and watching the connections and changes through observing our Plug and Play relationship has been very exciting. It seems to me that this is going to become a bigger deal in the coming years and I am excited to see where it leads for the future of the industry.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for the future of your field?

We are going to have to learn to better deal with and come to grips with the future of big data. The amount of information and data that we will have access to in the next five years is expected to double. We already have difficulty making sense of the vast amount of data we currently have access to, but figuring out how to make good use of this is going to be vital for future success. The generation some call “Generation Z” are being raised in the digital world fully. In the future, these will be the “digital ninjas” that will drive the future of technology and the world.

Their competency with technology will prepare them with a vitally important skill set that will allow them to drive the future of business across most, if not all, industries. Technology management and increased efficiency are also going to be big future challenges as the amount of data and processing continue to increase by leaps and bounds.

What business books have inspired you?

I always recommend “Soft Selling in a Hard World” by Jerry Vass. It is a great read and it provides really clear insight on what it means and what it takes to be a success in modern business.

What is a recent purchase you have made that helped with your business?

It might sound a bit silly, but I spent $100 on a really good cord organizer. I travel so much and have a ton of cords that need to go with me everywhere, so it has helped keep the clutter down and has made traveling with gadgets and cords far less hassle.

What piece of advice do you give most often?

No matter how much the business world changes and how much it comes to rely on the latest technology, the ability to develop and maintain relationships with others within your field is more vital than I can articulate. Networking, while it might seem like an old school strategy, is still one of the most important aspects of developing your business and meeting the right people you need to make your business thrive. It isn’t just enough to know how to network, you must also provide something of value in return.

 

Communication is one of the most vital skills in any business. Networking is a way of helping you hone those skills, which will prove beneficial in many different aspects of your life, even those beyond the business world. Being able to communicate well and having good relationships with your employees and other people within your field helps to foster deeper and more mutually beneficial relationships. Actually listening when people talk allows you to provide actionable advice that will help them with the problem they face or the goal they are trying to achieve.

Are there any exciting projects in the works at Willis Towers Watson?

I love how exciting and fast-paced our company is. It seems like there is always something new and potentially very exciting coming down the pike. We have a service called AMX, which started in Europe, but was recently unveiled to clients in the United States as well. The service is a delegated investment management service. We advise on a huge amount of capital and help our clients reduce the aggregation and compliance processes, which not only saves time, but saves money as well. We are currently helping clients manage some $120 million in assets, which a huge amount of capital that we advise on. So far, we have had a good deal of success in penetrating the US market after the debut, so we hope this trend continues and are excited to see what the future holds for this new offering.

 

 

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