From the world of fashion to insurance VP

Executive on her unexpected path in insurance

From the world of fashion to insurance VP

Insurance News


Berri Willis (pictured center) was free-spirited in her youth – and about as far removed from the insurance world as you could imagine. Armed with a degree in fashion, Willis thought she knew what she wanted out of life.

“I had no intention of sitting behind a desk and doing insurance,” she said. “I [thought] that’s definitely not my path.”

However, as the associate vice president and managing director at Burns & Wilcox told IB, it was a chance encounter that lured her into the market.

“I had come back from traveling and was in my hometown,” she said. “I ended up renting a home to a Burns & Wilcox associate. She was very strategic and wanted to negotiate the price of the rental – and I finally got her what she wanted. The next day, she came in and offered me a position at the firm.” 

Starting from the ground up, Willis embraced each new role with vigour. She started off filing taxes, answering phones and working as an associate on an underwriting team, where she quickly discovered her passion for the industry, particularly the Excess & Surplus lines (E&S) sector. 

“I fell in love with the industry,” said Willis. “It had everything that I wanted, and I didn’t even know about it. It became very intriguing. There were so many opportunities and so many different directions, and it evolved like I wanted to evolve. I had a great time going into management because I was able to speak for those who didn’t want to speak.”

Mentorship and leadership development are central to Willis’s philosophy. Speaking to IB, she believes in leveraging individual strengths and fostering a team environment.

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. As Willis explained, the challenges of taking over a new branch while dealing with the influx of COVID were immense.

“As I was handed the keys to the Charlotte office, we faced the pandemic and had to go full-time remote,” she said. “However, it gave us a whole set of tools we didn’t know we needed. We implemented more structure, more planning, and kept communication at a high level.”

However, that’s not as uncommon as you might imagine. While the pandemic was undoubtedly stressful, it also acted as a catalyst – propelling new ideas, innovations and ways of working into our reality. It also served as a brutal learning tool for leaders trying to hone their management skills. And it seems employees agree – with research finding 78% of workers think their leaders responded well to the COVID crisis

And, looking ahead, Willis is optimistic about the future, both for herself and Burns & Wilcox – especially where talent streams are concerned. 

“In terms of our long-term goals, we are looking to expand quite drastically,” she told IB. “I want to be at the forefront of that and bring on talent, recruitment, more experts in the field – focusing on many different lines of business, niches and departments. In 2024, we’re looking to expand our talent and our market capabilities. I think it’s just a recipe for success.”

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