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Willis Group CEO Joe Plumeri to Run a Kinder, Gentler Company

In the midst of the worst recession many of us have ever seen, CEO's have become hard. They eke out profits by firing as many people as possible and forcing those who remain to work twice as much.

So when Joseph Plumeri (who unlike the rest of his family pronounces his name with a "plume" rather than a "plumb") says in a New York Times interview that he wants to become a nice guy, should we be surprised? It's strange, to say the least, because Joe is known to jump on tables at staid business meetings in London, and give rockem-sockem speeches more suitable for halftime in an NFL locker room than a company boardroom.

Plumeri isn't relinquishing the reins at Willis Group Holdings, the third largest insurance broker in the world, but says he does plan to tweak his style to be more collaborative. "I used to be a command and control guy," he admits to the NYT. Now he wants to make "people feel they're making a contribution, and they are part of the process."

Plumeri's earlier role model, from his years at Citigroup, was Sandy Weill, the hard-charging CEO who stood the entire financial industry on its ear by getting around Glass-Steagall even before it was revoked by Congress. Weill knitted together pieces like brokerage research, investment banking and retail banking into a financial powerhouse which, unfortunately, came crashing down on his successor.

The other influential person Plumeri listened to - and who got him his current job - was Henry Kravis, of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., who is best known as one of the Barbarians at the Gate, and runs what is arguably the world's largest private equity fund.

So why is Plumeri now talking about taking time to smell the roses? And is he telling the truth? Well, Joe does like to give interviews and speeches, and, in a world of bland insurance executives, he definitely stands out. Plumeri also says that in his first five years as Willis CEO "I didn't replace a person." Maybe not, but a lot of people left of their own accord rather than work with him.

Brokering insurance deals remains a tough business, and it's likely to get tougher as companies try to squeeze every dime out of deals with insurers.

Plumeri has succeeded in keeping profits up, but the road to success for the big three is likely to be through acquisitions. Marsh & McLennan CEO Brian Duperreault has already said he wants to expand, and Aon Corp. made an acquisition just this week.

Perhaps what Plumeri is really doing is extending an olive branch to the small brokers who are looking to sell. Kinder and gentler, yes; foolish, no.

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