Q&A with Michael Burwell, CFO

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 Millary, 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. 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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