October 12, 2012 by Daryl Angier and Regan Reid
On a sunny Friday morning in June in a boardroom overlooking Lake Ontario, Bill Besse is dressed casually, but his demeanour is less relaxed. As he explains his new role and his expanding agenda, he rocks restlessly in his chair, conscious of his time commitments. Recently appointed to the position of global/large business national leader at Aon Risk Solutions, he’s got places to go and people to see.
Formerly Aon’s regional director for Ontario, since his appointment to the role in May, Besse has been “travelling and travelling,” all across Canada, meeting the members of his team. Besse is now in charge of selecting and leading a group responsible for growing and retaining business among large companies with national and international operations. “Our clients are changing. As they become more global in nature they’re looking for a broker that has those global capabilities to work with them,” says Christine Lithgow, president of Aon Risk Solutions in Canada. “So, the structure of our new group is really to focus on the global and large clients so that we can build the best resources to give to our clients, from wherever in the world,”. “Bill’s team will be responsible for the global and large strategy and they will be building teams of experts that will be able to work with clients to really bring all of Aon to our clients.” Leading the new national strategy will require a comprehensive knowledge of Aon’s resources across the country and even around the world. But with more than 25 years in the industry, including experience on the client side, Besse is up to the challenge.
Before developing its new global strategy, Aon Canada was divided into five regions: BC/Yukon, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic. Now, instead of structuring the organization by geography, the company is moving toward a strata and segmentation model. Meaning, at the national level, Aon’s resources will be divided according to strata (the size and sophistication of the client) and then by industry segmentation. “We really see this new strategy as aligning us to what our clients are looking for, rather than us being structured by geography, which is historically the way we’ve been,” says Lithgow.
Within that realignment, Besse’s goal are stratightforward. “My main focus [is] standardization of how we handle and service the largest accounts, and making sure that on a national basis we know what the best services are required for those clients,” he says.
To find solutions to his clients’ problems, Besse must be able to access the best of Aon and its resources. Besse, therefore, needs to become an expert on Aon, knowing exactly who the experts are and where they are in the world. That explains his hectic travel schedule of late. “The challenge with any organization the size of Aon is making sure that you know the company, you know the resources, know the practice groups, know the leaders,” says Besse. “You can’t have the best of the best in every single office across the organization, so part of my role is to support business plans with each of our clients and bring the right resources to those clients.” If a large manufacturing client is located in Saskatoon, for example, Besse would assemble the right people who know the manufacturing industry regardless of if they’re in Saskatoon or St. John’s. “[It’s about] bringing in the right brokers, the right risk control engineers, the right alternative risk financing individuals that know that industry, bringing them down to support [that] team in Saskatoon,” he says. And with 500 offices in more than 120 countries, Aon can—and will—call on its experts from all over the world, says Besse. “It is very easy, structurally for us now, to bring key resource out of the US, say in Miami, to help a client in Regina, or somebody from London, or Singapore, to assist a client in Montreal,” he says.
The shift in Aon’s strategy parallels new attitudes to risk that have arisen in the last few years. Since the economic downturn in 2008, Besse says large organizations are looking at risk in a new light. “Risk management has moved to kind of a higher level within an organization,” he says. In many cases, senior executives are now overseeing an organization’s risks, and they are looking at risk on a more long-term basis. “I think typically, in the past, we’ve looked at the risks as of today,” he says. But now “if [executives are] making decisions on merger and acquisition activity, or expanding into a different country, they want to know the risk of doing that and how that will impact the business three to five years down the road, not just today.” As senior executives’ roles expand to include risk management, Besse says his team will be there to help. “They are being asked to—required to—look at all the risks within the organization. So we really feel that is an opportunity for us to help them with that.”
Predicting risk and the impact of risk has become more difficult in an increasingly globalized world, says Besse. The disaster in Japan last year, for example, exposed Canadian companies to risks they did not even know they were vulnerable to. “I’ve seen situations where the small company in southwestern Ontario had no idea the impact of Japan and how it affected their organization supplier to supplier,” he says. Besse identifies supply chain issues as a major risk that will continue to be a high priority for years to come. Urs Uhlmann, Zurich’s head of Global Corporate Canada, says these issues stem from organizations’ drive to find efficiencies and reduce costs. “How do you actually reduce cost without assuming additional risks for the organization?” he asks. “If you outsource some of the processing or the construction or production, for example, you obviously give away some of the control of being able to service your customers. Those are risks that not everybody, I think, appropriately assesses when they make the decision to outsource.”
To be successful Besse’s team must help companies fully understand their risks—and to do that, they must fully understand their clients. “You need to understand the client’s business, you have to be involved in their business, partner with their business. It’s not about supplying an insurance product because that’s the way it’s been supplied in the past. Companies are changing,” he says. “You need to be working with them and understand that.”
Besse has the benfit of having sat on the other side of the table in the broker/client relationship. After finishing school, he got a job with Wawanesa Insurance on the claims side of the business. After moving throughout Ontario, Besse eventually landed a position with Reed Stenhouse in London. Besse worked in the London office for nearly 10 years before a plastics industry client hired him as a global risk manager. Many tout this experience as an important asset that Besse brings to his new position. “He has the experience, since he’s worked on both sides—he’s worked on the customer side and the broker side,” says Uhlmann. “He certainly understands the internal demands of a customer.”
After working as a risk manager for four and a half years, Besse returned to Aon to work in the risk management group. Soon, he was leading the mid-market and small business unit in Ontario and eventually moved to the role of regional director for Ontario. “I had the responsibility of running the business here in Ontario, all stratum within our organization,” he says. Lithgow says this prior experience will help him in his new position. “He led our Ontario region, most recently, so he has great skills in building a team and working with a team of people.” she says.
Besse says collaboration is key to success in this industry. “I learned a long time ago that you can’t know everything. You can’t know everything about your client’s business, and you can’t know everything about the insurance business, or the resources available to help you support your client,” he says. “You need to involve, you need to work with people collaboratively within your company.” For this, Uhlmann says Besse is perfect for the job. “I certainly think he’s a great people person,” he says. “I think his experiences over the years will help him to not only know how to do the job himself, but also how to coach his troops to do the job right.”
Room to Grow
Despite his busy schedule, Besse has big plans for his team and is looking forward to the opportunities this new strategy presents. “There are many, many large companies within Canada—evolving companies, growing companies,” he says. “I still think there is lots of room for expansion.” Though he acknowledges that there are only so many Fortune 500 companies and competition for these clients is increasing, he thinks Aon’s strategy separates it from the pack. “It’s about three main things: client leadership, our people, and improving our operations. So any changes we make to our strategy are always focused around those key things. And that drives our success.” Though Besse is quick to speak about Aon’s successes, he’s hesitant to define what success means to him personally. “I’ve never been one to say, ‘I want to be here in three to five years.’ That’s not my style,” he says. But upon further reflection, he adds, “I like the fact that we have long standing clients, long standing employees and that I’m involved in that process. That’s success for me.”
Copyright 2012 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the July/August 2012 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.