Michael Burwell is a successful financial advisor who is currently serving as the Chief Financial Officer at Willis Towers Watson, an advisory and consulting firm that provides a wide range of services for organizations large and small. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and is also a trained CPA. Before he joined Willis Towers Watson, he worked for over 30 years in the industry, in a variety of high level and crucial roles.
He spent 11 years working on business advisory services before being elected partner and moving into the transaction business at their operations hub in Detroit. He had such a high degree of success there that he was asked to take over the central US transaction division.
After his success at the national level, Michael Burwell was named Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer. In 2012, he helped to expand internal shared services within the company in his role as Vice Chairman Global and U.S. Transformation.
Where do your ideas come from?
That is a good question. A lot of the best ideas that we’ve had have actually come from other people within the company. They have an invaluable and unique perspective that gives them the ability to infer and intuit things that someone outside of the daily operations just couldn’t do. Making sure those good ideas get the proper assessment has led to many innovations.
How do you stay productive?
I think one of the best ways to be and retain a high level of productivity is to know how to do more with less. Technology has dramatically improved our lives in so many ways, including in the number of tasks we can accomplish on a given day. I think taking advantage of all the tools available to me helps me maintain a high level of production. These tools are there to help us streamline our operations and make our lives easier, so it just makes sense to take advantage of these tools to help me perform at a higher level.
What’s a piece of advice that you give most often?
I cannot stress enough the importance of networking and developing relationships within your field. Not only is it important to cultivate relationships for the purposes of business, it is also helpful for general interpersonal relationships to be in the moment and try to really focus on what is being communicated to you. Solid communication with team members, colleagues, potential investors, and clients, is so incredibly vital for success in pretty much any industry. It is not enough to just say what you think someone wants to hear, you have to actually listen to what they are saying and provide them with relevant, actionable advice that will help them with the problem they face or the goal they are trying to reach.
Can you tell us about a tough decision you’ve had to make?
I was involved in an effort relating to a new technology in development. We had put time, effort, and also a lot of money into the project, but looking into the market trends, I had to make the decision stop the project. It definitely wasn’t the most popular decision, but it was the best decision that could be made at the time, but it’s hard to pull the proverbial plug on a project you’ve given a lot to.
Is there anything exciting or newsworthy happening at Willis Towers Watson?
There is always fun and exciting news, it seems. We have a delegated investment management service called AMX that we are now offering to our clients. We started AMX in Europe and recently debuted the service in the United States. Currently, we are advising clients on over $120 in assets under client management. This is a huge amount of capital to advise on. Our services help small and large money managers to reduce the aggregation and compliance processes, which not only saves time, but also saves money as well. We are having success at penetrating the US market and are very excited to see where this leads in the future.
Can you give us an overview of a typical day in the life of Michael Burwell?
I get up by 5am most days and always make my bed, even when I am traveling and not in my own. There is something about accomplishing even a small task to start your day that I really appreciate. I hop on my bike for awhile and use that time to plan out my goals for the day, what I’d like to get done, and reflect on what I have achieved already and how it will best prepare me for future goals.
Can you tell us about some of your career accomplishments you are proud of?
That is another excellent question. I would have to say that there are a number of things that come to mind when considering how to answer this question. I’d say my proudest accomplishment is that four of the people that I have mentored and guided went on to become partners at the firm I previously worked for. They all had different skill sets, personalities, and goals, and it was incredibly rewarding to watch them grow, develop, and shine in their careers. Seeing what they have accomplished makes me very proud that I had even some small part in their success.
Another career accomplishment I’m quite proud of was my ability to increase efficiency and the bottom line, without having to lay off employees in the process. As the CFO of a professional services firm, I oversaw the elimination of $500 million in costs, without having to reduce staff in any way. There were no layoffs as a part of this cost elimination plan, and this was of the utmost importance to me.
Finally, I’d have to say that I am also really proud of a deal that I helped negotiate with Google to create a unique partnership with the company that will help enhance the experience of the people who make what they do possible, as well as to retain them while also attracting the next generation of thinkers and innovators. It is important to always be forward-thinking and this partnership with Google makes that possible.
Can you describe the biggest challenges you see facing your industry in the future?
Big data is something we are going to have to better contend with and in the near future, too. Over the next five years, the amount of information and data we have available for our clients is expected to double. You heard that correctly: double. This data will help provide clients and other companies the information they need to better manage risks, but that is only if you are abreast and using the latest in data analytics tools and taking advantage of all the valuable data we have and will have at our proverbial fingertips. If you do not figure out how to leverage this data, you are likely to be left behind.
Generation Z, as they have been dubbed, are going to be the Digital Ninjas of the future. They have grown up in a digital world, have come of age in a digital world, and are well-suited to leverage the digital world. They can be called the “turbo chargers” that will drive your unique insight. You need to attract this generation and use their insight to the best advantage for the future. In some ways, we have to let the people with the skills in demand – and in this case, it is Generation Z – and let them use those skills to drive the future of business across all industries.
Technology and efficiency are also big future challenges and issues that we must address head-on if we are to stay relevant in the future. One of the things that technology allows us to do is do more with less. It allows us to streamline our operations, improve efficiencies, cut the proverbial fat, and thus allow us to grow without a dramatic increase in the cost of doing business. Technology should, ideally, drive about 2-3% annual productivity in a year. If a business wants to remain competitive in the future, they will need to be able to leverage technology for increased efficiency, allowing them to, as I said earlier, do more with less.
Let’s move on to some more current and then personal topics, Detroit – where your business is – recently emerged from bankruptcy. Do you think this will have an impact on your business?
I have been fortunate that my business has not had much effect on way or the other from the recent filing and emergency from bankruptcy seen in Detroit. A lot of businesses were impacted – some to a large degree – and I was fortunate to be able to avoid any of the topsy-turvy the often results from a big financial upheaval like that.
What do you think the long-term future of Detroit looks like?
Despite financial struggles, Detroit is still a proverbial player the world of business. While the city was most certainly in steep decline for some time, it has started to emerge from this and is becoming more attractive to young talent. In recent years, younger people from Generation Z have been moving to Detroit for work or to start their own business. Generation Z wants to revitalize and live in urban areas and are moving to cities, stimulating their economy and breathing new life into previously struggling places. The influx of young new talent has led to an economic boom for Detroit – which is a very exciting and very welcome change. I think we can expect this trend to continue into the future.
It’s always nice to learn about the person behind the career. What is your favorite thing to do your free time, do you have a hobby?
I love golf. It is a fun and relaxing activity and it is a great way to enjoy some time with friends and colleagues, as well as to just blow off some steam. I should caveat that I am only an average golfer, but I hit the links every time I have the opportunity to do so.
When did you start golfing and learn that you had a passion for it?
My grandfather actually got me into it when I was a kid. It was something fun that we could do together and I just kept it up. There is a lot that is appealing to me about golf. There is always room for improvement and I love that. Nobody is perfect at golf or shoots a perfect game of golf, which means you are always striving to be better – it is always possible to be better. I like the competition with myself and with others.
How often do you play? Do you engage in any competitions?
Generally I play with my friends, colleagues, or family. It’s always a fun way to spend time with other people that gives the activity some direction. Every shot makes someone happy. We all get something out of these outings even if they aren’t particularly competitive. I go to a number of events and some of them are very competitive – not at all like a relaxing game with friends. I’d say I’m able to attend 3-4 of these events a year.
You have been involved with a good deal of philanthropic work, can you tell us a little bit about this?
Unfortunately, my schedule is so packed that I am unable to do any volunteer work right now, which I really do enjoy doing. I have previously been on the Board of Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center. While working with this organization, I was able to help change the Board and Operating Committee in such a way as to dramatically improve the governance of the organization.
What made this organization attractive to you?
I have had a number of friends and family members who have struggled with addiction. I was looking to help make a difference in the community, so focusing on issues surrounding addiction and drug and alcohol use made sense to me on a personal level. These types of services are so desperately needed and do so much good for the people it supports and the community as a whole. I hope in the future I have the ability to get involved again in this or some other similar organization. I feel that being able to contribute to the community that has helped foster your success is just something that anyone who is capable and able to should engage in.
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