Willis Looks to Lift Consulting Business With Acquisitions

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Large insurance companies like Aetna and Humana are not the only goliaths that are joining forces these days. A number of insurance brokers and consulting firms have been actively pursuing mergers and acquisitions to create synergies and growth opportunities. Willis Group Holdings plc, the London-based parent of Willis North America, has been particularly active this year.

Willis announced plans in January to combine its wholesale insurance brokerage units with Miller Insurance Services LLP. At the time, Willis CEO Dominic Casserly said the deal would bring “additional expertise and enhanced value” to Willis. In April, Willis announced that it would pay $590 million to purchase Gras Savoye, the largest broker in France, in an effort to expand into continental Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

In early June, Willis acquired Evolution Benefits Consulting of Malvern, Pennsylvania. Evolution Benefits Consulting provides strategic health and welfare benefit services to employers. In a press release, Doug Pera, Willis’ National Partner for the Atlantic Region, expressed excitement at adding a team with “highly specialized expertise at a time when we see the demand for strategic benefit consulting continue to grow.”

Later that month, Willis announced a blockbuster merger with Towers Watson. One of the purported reasons behind the deal is Towers Watson’s proprietary private health exchange platform, One Exchange. In fact, Willis’ CEO Casserly said the idea of a merger arose from joint work between the two companies on a private health exchange. Willis offers an exchange solution powered by Liazon’s Bright Choices platform for the middle market, but also offers the One Exchange platform from Towers Watson to its larger customers.

One analyst described the deal as a “defensive move,” and said that Willis is losing key personnel and “struggling to deliver on its own cost savings plans.” Willis’ net income fell 0.8 percent from 2013 to 2014, while Towers Watson’s rose 13%. Because more than half of Towers Watson’s revenue comes from benefits consulting and Willis is primarily an insurance broker, the combined company will derive 43% of its revenue from human capital and benefits. This may explain why another investment consultant believes that “cross-selling is the primary objective” for the merger.