Coming soon to a theater near you, "Clash of the Titans II," the heart-pounding, chest-thumping, downright Olympian epic that locks mighty Aon and all-powerful Marsh in fearsome death-defying combat to decide once and for all whether it's best to be bigger or better to be best.
The spectacle invites comparison to legendary battles of yore: the wars between Frazier and Ali, the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and (not to make light of so weighty a subject) Popeye and Bluto.
But, alas, this saga falls short of the mark.
In case you've been dozing off in a parallel universe, or just too busy worrying about trivial issues like the war in Iraq, the price of gasoline or the resale value of your home, let's catch you up on the really important stuff.
The two brokerage behemoths have been going at each other of late on this not-so-burning question, with Aon cranking it up in early August.
It was then that Aon CEO Greg Case quietly told a group of investors that his firm had passed Marsh & McLennan as the world's top broker based, according to published trade reports, on a new calculation using 2005 total pure brokerage revenue.
The measurement used only fees collected for placing insurance business and excluded consulting and investment income.
It's a calculation Aon spokesman Al Orendorff called fairly simple, one acknowledged, he said, by the analysts, though it's also one few would understand and fewer would care about.
For many years, of course, Marsh has been the recognized master of the insurance brokerage universe in terms of total revenue, brokerage revenue and market capitalization. Aon has been a perennial No. 2.
But with this announcement, Chicago's Aon was clearly elbowing its way into the top spot, though Case said this was not the goal. The ranking, Case said, is just "an interesting derivative outcome of being good at what we do."
If you believe Case's assertion, meet me after the column. There's a bridge over the Chicago River I want to sell you.
New York-based Marsh felt compelled to respond, and quickly. Spokesman Mike Kachel called the Aon claim "puzzling news given that the widely accepted revenue criteria that's been used for decades to rank brokerage companies still has us at approximately $3.5 billion ahead of our nearest competitor," in itself an inflated claim in the esteem of at least one industry analyst.
He went on to say, in effect, that you can always bend statistics to your own uses, which of course Marsh is as adept at doing as Aon.
And so it goes.
They just don't seem to get it. Each is big enough and more than good enough.
The whole point is that Aon and Marsh are infinitely better served by focusing on the issues that really matter: not who's bigger or who's better or who's best, but on how well they serve their clients, on how fully they disclose their affairs and on how transparent they are.
In the final analysis, I'm afraid this Clash of the Titans devolves into something a whole lot less heroic: a school-yard slugfest and spitting contest between a couple of neighborhood bullies that's as long on bravado as it is on relevance.
Maybe they haven't noticed, but no one's watching, no one's keeping score and no one's caring who "wins."
THOMAS J. SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for 40 years, is currently Managing Director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, of Baldwin, N.Y.
October 1, 2006
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