Moving 1,000 to the Same Systems

Aon Global Controller Laurel Meissner creates a global focus by integrating finance teams from about 400 acquisitions.

It seems surprising that Laurel Meissner, global controller and senior vice president at Aon Corp., likes to travel in her free time, given that she has spent the last two years jetting among many of the 130 countries in which Aon has a presence. But then, Meissner’s a people person.

She would have to be, given that her primary responsibility is to get Aon’s 1,000 finance department employees to work on the same systems and use the same processes. The insurance brokerage, which had $8.5 billion in 2010 revenue, is seeking to control costs and streamline finance processes by integrating about 400 acquisitions that it’s made over time, including its two most recent and among the largest, the purchases of Hewitt Associates in 2010 and Benfield Group in 2008.

“That’s what my objective was when I came in,” Meissner says. “How do I take a 1,000-person finance organization and create a worldwide focus? It’s part of the reason I came here. It was a ripe opportunity for us, and where we were in our history. I found that very exciting.”

Challenging, too, given that traditionally, Chicago-based Aon’s approach was to “let well enough alone,” as Meissner says, when it came to integrating acquisitions. But even as she changes that, Meissner has been careful to make her team feel that they are part of something and valued, and that they have opportunities to learn and grow.

When she started at Aon, Meissner borrowed a page from her former employer, Motorola, and had all of the members of her team complete a self-assessment that allows them to list their existing skills and what they’re interested in learning in the future. The information was used to match employees with opportunities, and so far about 35 people have moved to different roles, often in different locations, to Chicago from London, for example, or from Chicago to Mexico City and Hong Kong.

“I believe that an organization will live or die with its people,” she says. “They need to be successful, or I’m not.”

Meissner joined Motorola in 2000 and her final position there was chief accounting officer and senior vice president. Earlier, she served as CFO at Initiate Systems and Cruise Technologies, and spent 17 years at KPMG.

Her experience at Motorola allowed her to see the efficiencies that can be gained by having a centralized finance team, instead of separate ways of doing things in each country.

“Watching what my predecessors [at Motorola] had done was really a big piece in formulating from my perspective how I would do that if I were starting with a blank sheet of paper,” Meissner says.

Come January, Meissner will have moved Aon’s 19 largest country units, which account for 90% of the company’s revenue, to common systems and processes. Just 111 more to go, which should make this year and the next very busy, with yet more travel. But Meissner is energized.

“You could just take a model and start slashing costs, but you could move too fast,” she says. “The people piece of it is really critical. It requires you do is take into account the culture of the organizations, and more specifically the people. Our revenues are tied directly to our people.”


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