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Toby Wemyss chief executive officer (CEO) at Willis International -- interview

How I went from theology student to CEO at Willis International

Toby Wemyss tells us how maximising opportunities at Willis International led to him becoming a chief executive officer.
For my move into industry, I think it was my ability to work as part of a team that made me successful. I used examples from the Marines, university and extracurricular activities.

A degree in theology is not the most common background for a career in financial services. What made you choose it?

I was really interested in the subject and it seemed fascinating. Plus, I was always a big fan of history and English – theology incorporates aspects of both.

Describe your job for us

I am responsible for Willis’s operations in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa to facilitate the best operational environment for the 400 people across the territory for whom I’m responsible. The majority of the people I work with are overseas, so a lot of travel is involved.

Did you do any work experience before starting work?

I spent a memorable two months working in the marketing department at Amcor Fibre Packaging in Melbourne, Australia. It was a great chance to work somewhere new.  

What was your first job after university and how did you get it?

After university I got fit and joined the Royal Marines as an officer. The application process was tough. It included a written application, exams, a two-day practical and going before the Admiralty Interview Board. It also included a tough physical test, which I failed the first time!

What prompted your next move?

After an injury on the assault course, I was medically discharged from the Royal Marines. I began looking for employment and got several offers, one of which was a position at Willis. When I sought the advice of a friend, he recommended the firm because he said it would offer me the greatest opportunity as early as possible.

What aspects of your CV do you think helped you to get hired by Willis?

For my move into industry, I think it was the emphasis I placed on my ability to work as part of a team that made me successful. I used examples from the Marines, university and extracurricular activities. I also kept my CV short and sharp. As an interviewer I find a short, succinct CV impressive, as it tells me that the individual has spent time writing it carefully.    

What have your major career steps so far been?

Transferring from the global business, which was largely based out of London, to our international operation was a big change. It means that I’m now responsible for our offices in several countries and the respective client-facing colleagues.   

Tell us about a career highlight

At the age of 35 – ten years into my career – I was given the opportunity to run and rebuild Willis’s $US50m property casualty business in the face of some difficult financial times. We grew the business’s revenue by 50 per cent in three years.

And a crisis?

A big deal in Australia where we told the client that we were confident we could deliver suddenly went disastrously wrong. I had sleepless nights worrying about how we could get through the situation. Fortunately a solution was found after talks with the market that we were working with.

What aspect of your job do you find the most challenging?

I work across several countries and it can be challenging and complicated to convey the same message to, for instance, clients and colleagues in the Middle East, Central Europe and South Africa because they would naturally perceive it differently.   

And what do you most enjoy about it?

The people that I work with.  This is an amazing profession and dynamic industry, and there’s so much that’s changing, which keeps things exciting.

What words of career advice would you offer young people entering the profession?

  • Thoroughly research the company you’re interested in and the industry. The more you understand, the more confident you’ll be in your application and at interview stage
  • Exceed expectations in every task that you’re asked to do
  • Team work is essential, so highlight it when you apply. The people in my business prefer to win together as part of a team than win on their own

What particular skills do you think make you good at your job?

I think that I’m perceptive and able to understand quickly people’s subtle reactions to what I’m saying. These are important qualities to have as a broker because you could lose an opportunity if you push too hard or are too passive.

Do you manage to have a good work/life balance?

I’m a father of four and try not to let the long hours I work stop me from seeing my children every day. Admittedly, every now and again I get it wrong. When I first joined Willis, there was no balance. For the first five years, it was just me and Willis – which actually served me well.

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