Filed Under:Risk Management, Corporate Risk

Will to win: Willis executive Alexis Faber

Alexis Faber, FINEX practice leader for Willis North America, on career achievements, family life and why she believes “nothing is acceptable except your best.”

Alexis Faber appreciates both the value and the price of victory. As FINEX practice leader for Willis North America, she heads up the firm's financial and executive risk specialty practice that places about $1 billion of premium in the marketplace and generated double-digit revenue growth in 2014.

She's also a married mother of two who divides her time between her home in Memphis and the brokerage's Manhattan office, and understands well the level of detail—and commitment—that is required to achieve her personal and professional goals.

“My job is incredibly dynamic, and no day is the same,” says Faber, whose current position includes a market component, sales responsibilities, involvement with claims and management. In all of those areas, she applies the business and team-leading sensibilities she forged while competing on field hockey, lacrosse and ice hockey teams while in college. She now competes in triathlons, and spends the early hours of the morning training for them.

“The people I work with understand that every conversation we have is about everyone working together to achieve a common goal,” says Faber. “In looking back over the last year, I can see that our team met their goals and executed on everything they set out to do.”

In her career, she is most proud of the success her FINEX team has had over the last year in executing their vision. “We set out to accomplish three things last year: grow the business, recruit and develop talent, and run a more efficient business. We have done each of these things and emerged a stronger, more competitive, motivated team. The business grew double digits in 2014, we promoted from within and brought new talent on to the team, and our operating model has evolved.”

Whether it's in sports, on the job or at home, she says, “nothing is acceptable except your best. Your effort level has to be 100% at all times.”

Taking a Chance

Faber, now 38, began her professional career at Citigroup in 2000 after graduating from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., with a degree in economics and art history. At the time, the most popular investment banking groups were technology and media, but she found herself in the financial institutions group focused on insurance companies. It wasn't her first choice, but “things happen for a reason.”

While Faber was at Citigroup, Willis, one of the bank's clients, went public. She worked closely with Willis’ senior management through the initial public offering and soon met Joe Plumeri, the well-known former Citigroup executive who was appointed Willis’ CEO in 2000. Her introduction to the colorful, larger-than-life Plumeri involved learning how to craft the perfect cup of cappuccino as she traveled around the country with what she fondly refers to as the “Willis IPO Road Show.” Faber quickly gained respectful appreciation for Plumeri's leadership style and unyielding attention to detail, as well as his ability to focus on the customer.

Faber joined Willis in 2003 as a financial analyst and soon began applying her strong financial and operational expertise to other areas of the firm. In 2006 she earned the title of chief operating officer of the executive risks practice and in 2009 she was appointed COO of Willis North America Specialties. In 2012 she became the practice leader for Willis’ Risk Control and Claim Advocacy Practice, while maintaining her COO role for the Specialty businesses. She assumed her current role in 2014, working out of Willis’ Memphis office when she isn't traveling.

While Faber's hard work and strong track record of success have helped propel her career, she also credits Willis for challenging her. “Culturally as a firm we do not accept the status quo, and quite frankly I thrive on being challenged every day,” she says. “My goal is to add value to my organization through creative thinking and mobilizing my teams.”

She says Willis took a “bit of risk” on her promotion. “You don't find a lot of leaders in this space that didn't come up the ranks as a D&O or E&O broker, and that's unique.” But Faber is proving that a strong strategy combined with strong leadership skills can move the needle. Now, she is helping Willis take a long-term view of the opportunities in this space, particularly with Cyber insurance, and building a business model to support that.

As is the case with most working parents, Faber works hard to strike a healthy balance between her career and her personal life, which includes her husband, Michael, a Memphis native and an executive with his family's furniture company, and their two small boys, Charlie, age 2, and Jack, age 4. She feels fortunate that Willis allows her the flexibility to work out of two locations. “When I was announced as the FINEX practice leader, traditionally a New York-based position, I got two reactions from clients and markets,” she says. “The first was, ‘You’ll be moving to New York now, won't you?’ The second was, ‘I’m thrilled that Willis gave you this role and is allowing you to be based in Memphis.’”

Commitment to Excellence

Faber believes that the perceived lack of progression of women in business is actually a conscious decision on the part of many women. “You hear statistics that there aren't enough women in certain roles or industries,” she says, “but there also aren't statistics about how many women want to be in those roles. Often, women don't have the desire to take on high-profile jobs because they want to honor other priorities in their lives at the time.” She also finds that some women shut themselves down before they try. Faber tells the women she interacts with, “Don't look at barriers. Instead, look at what you want to accomplish professionally and think about whether there are ways you can pursue that.”

Faber is also involved Willis’ group-wide initiatives to advance careers and create a more diverse workplace including the firm's “Women at Willis” program—a networking and mentoring program for Willis Associates. “As an industry we’re moving in the right direction, I think we have the right priorities, but we still have a lot of work to do,” she says.

She recently hosted a lunch for about 50 men and women from the Philadelphia Willis office. Although the event was sponsored by the “Women at Willis” program, Faber decided that the topics should be about creating a vision for your career, which would apply to men and women equally.

She told the group, “Write down your vision for your career, or life, and then consider your strategy for how to execute on your vision.” She noted that a vision is not just about progressing your career, explaining, “If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, be aware of that and be confident about where you are professionally.”

The attendees were given a homework assignment to create their personal vision statement in one sentence. “Think about whether you’re achieving it,” Faber told them. “If not, what would you change? If you are, celebrate that.”

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