Staring Down the Banks

How Vanessa Wittman, CFO of Marsh & McLennan, got the best deal from the capital markets.

Vanessa Wittman

There were lots of terrific historical relationships that MMC had. But I had some relationships with what I viewed as real go-to banks that had helped me through prior crises at 360 and Adelphia. Combining the historical MMC relationships with those from my past created a dynamic in which we put together a really terrific bank group on the bonds. And then we were able to look those folks in the eye and convince them that we were the right bet to make on a multiyear revolver when several of the leading institutional CEOs had said they hated the revolver business and didn’t want to go anywhere near it.

What challenges do you face in harmonizing the finance function at MMC?

When I arrived, the corporation had six finance teams. Each operating company had a finance team, and then there was the corporate-center team. It’s a model that I just don’t think is viable. Because this company was built on acquisitions, we are constrained by many legacy financial systems. We want to maintain our control environment while creating better business information for our leaders — but in a manner that is not siloed.

What will you achieve by eliminating the silos?

There’s a lot of cost embedded in there. One person could be doing the same job for multiple operating companies. I also think that we will be able to create more-challenging opportunities for people. Streamlining our finance team will enable good people to shine a bit more than the current structure would allow them to.

When do you expect to finish the harmonizing?

I would like it done last quarter. But I want to avoid laying out a structure or a path that isn’t supported by analytics and dollars and cents. I put together a team of people from across the operating companies that’s beginning a deep dive into how we can create efficiencies. I would expect that to take us through the third quarter of this year. Then I’d love to get the planning for the execution of any changes that we might make done by the end of the year. Then would come at least two years of work on the people processes, and probably longer on some parts of the systems. It’s a multiyear plan that’s just leaving the starting block.

How does being CFO of a company like MMC compare with being finance chief of Adelphia?

It’s a lot of fun to work for a place in which the intellectual horsepower at any one of five operating companies is tremendous. Some days, of course, you wish that you made widgets. But our businesses help our clients manage risk; in this environment, it’s hard to find anything that’s more important. On the other hand, there are days at MMC when I see our assets ride up and down the elevators. It’s a very different feeling from when your assets are in the ground. At Adelphia I always knew where my assets were.

 

 

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