How Norman Buchanan Built His Global Tax Reputation

Willis Towers Watson’s Norman Buchanan details how a ‘couple days’ abroad turned into four years in Paris that defined his career

Norman Buchanan has established himself as a specialist in global tax matters over the course of a forty-year career. His résumé includes an array of financial juggernauts, including PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Crown Holdings, Cephalon, and his current role as managing director of tax at Willis Towers Watson. But when he traveled to Paris in 1996 for his first international acquisition work abroad, he says, he didn’t really understand the extent of what he was being asked to do.

Norman Buchanan Willis Towers Watson
Norman Buchanan, Willis Towers WatsonPhoto by Donna Marie Buchanan

“I got a call on a late Friday night from the CFO and audit partner at [PwC],” he recalls. “Crown Holdings was looking at acquiring a French company, CarnaudMetalbox, and I was told I needed to get on an airplane to Paris on Sunday night. I agreed, but I didn’t really have any background or information on the magnitude of the deal. My boss at the time said to me, ‘You’re only going to be there a couple of days. Take a small bag with a few days of clothing, see what’s going on, and then head back.’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ I was just given an address and a place to go. I showed up at the company, I’m sitting in the lobby, and I tell someone I’m here as part of this project. I’m told to wait a few minutes, and someone will come to collect me.

“So, I look down at the table and there are these two huge documents on the company—one in English, and one in French—detailing this very complex company structure. I’m looking through this thinking, ‘I wonder what division we’re purchasing?’ They take me into this big conference room with about twenty attorneys, who ask if I’m there for the tax due diligence. I said, ‘Yeah, what’s going on and what are you guys doing here?’ They explained that they were here for the merger. I said, ‘I’m only expecting to be here a couple of days. Do you know which divisions we’re buying?’ At that point, all of the attorneys at the table look at the woman that was running the process. She says, ‘The whole thing.’ I said, ‘I think I’m going to need more clothes.’”

What was supposed to be a couple days’ journey for Buchanan ended up turning into a four-year expatriate assignment in Paris as he helped manage the European tax department of the newly acquired company in Paris. That experience provided him not only a sturdier foundation to work on local international tax matters, but also an appreciation of just how big the world really is.

“The job we do is rigorous, but my team enjoys coming to work. We actually get up in the morning and look forward to seeing each other in the office. Not a lot of departments can make that statement.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Buchanan took an early liking to bookkeeping in high school. Though he attended Drexel University on an athletic scholarship, he was encouraged to pursue accounting and finance so that he could still professionally earn a good living if an athletic career didn’t pan out. His early career included a lot of auditing work, and he says he soon recognized the difference between how he was perceived as an auditor and how he was later seen when he went to help companies prepare tax returns. It was like night and day.

“There’s a definite stigma in being an auditor,” he notes. “People think you’re looking for errors and mistakes, and fear they’re losing their jobs. It was always a difficult and different mindset. When I went to help prepare tax returns, though, people were taking me out to lunch, handing me cigars, and excited to learn ways that I could find to help them save money.”

Buchanan began building up a portfolio of corporate work, personal income, tax planning, and wealth management—in addition to specializing in international inbound and outbound transactional work that would become the bedrock of the workload he ultimately assumed with Willis Towers Watson.

When he first joined Towers Perrin, he did a lot of the preparatory work including recruiting an entire tax department to help the private company move into the public sector—and just as the company was about to make that jump, it was acquired by Watson Wyatt.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m most likely out of a job,’” he remembers. “I was approached by the CFO, who was impressed with my body of work to that point and said, ‘We’re looking for someone that can help us on the international side—maybe with some effective tax rate planning. We’d like you to stay on and manage the company’s tax affairs of the combined company.’ So, we did a lot of integration work, creating the building blocks for longer-term international planning.”

Buchanan notes that the landscape at Towers Watson remained pretty stable for several years, but the company struggled to improve on its effective tax rate because it wasn’t competitive enough with other companies that were domiciled offshore. Because Towers Watson was US-owned with foreign subsidiaries, the company was continually penalized under US international tax rules and, as a result, its effective tax rate remained static. Buchanan’s international know-how would prove to be an invaluable asset.

“In 2016, we merged with Willis in what became known as a ‘merger of equals.’ Willis PLC was a publicly traded company domiciled in Ireland. This merger created the opportunity for us to do so some global restructuring, which improved our effective tax rate with a very good result. We became a lot more competitive with these companies that used to have a major advantage over us.”

“I said, ‘I’m only expecting to be here for a couple of days. Do you know which divisions we’re acquiring?’ At that point, all of the attorneys at the table look at the woman that was leading the process. She says, ‘The whole thing.’ I said, ‘I think I’m going to need more clothes.’”

Buchanan says his leadership style can be traced back to the athletic days of his youth. He notes that his strong personality typically led to him being captain or cocaptain of the teams he played for.

“I’d ask my coach why I was picked as captain and he’d tell me my teammates did it,” he says. “He’d tell me, ‘You’re the guy they all want to get behind.’ I thought it was because I was always arguing with the referees and umpires, so my coach said ‘yeah, that too.’ It helped me mature quickly. You realize you’re setting a work ethic for everyone to follow and building loyalty. You basically want to fight and stand up for your teammates. It is the same for your employees.”

Buchanan’s strong leadership doesn’t go unnoticed by others. “Norm is a transformative leader with a larger-than-life personality,” says EY Global Client Service Partner Michael Harad, who has worked with Buchanan over the past fourteen years. “His loyalty and commitment bring out the best in his team, and his strategic thinking has created tremendous value for Willis Towers Watson.”

Now nearing retirement, Buchanan notes that one of the things he’s proudest of in his time with Willis Towers Watson is that the vast majority of the tax team he recruited more than a decade ago are still there with him.

“No one’s left,” he notes. “The job we do is rigorous, but my team enjoys coming to work. We actually get up in the morning and look forward to seeing each other in the office. Not a lot of departments can make that statement.”

How to Establish Yourself on an International Stage

Norman Buchanan provides advice to other young professionals pursing global roles

“Technology is rapidly developing and increasingly, making the world a smaller place to work. I think the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated something that would have taken place anyway, within a few years. It basically revolutionized the concept of a mobile workforce.

“We are all now working in an extremely mobile environment. But for me personally, if you had an interest in working at the international level, my first piece of advice would be to pick up another language. I didn’t have that opportunity and I had to learn French on the go because I was traveling and working in Paris whilst transitioning to my job in the US. I was kind of a one-man band doing a lot of things, and I really didn’t dedicate the right amount of time focusing on being proficient.

“I would also recommend anyone graduating from college to take a gap year and travel. Go backpack, go out and experience cultures and see how it’s done throughout the rest of the world. It gives you an appreciation for what you have, and more importantly, it gives you a bigger appreciation of other cultures to see them up close. Be open but be your own judge. You may be able to notice that other countries might be ahead of us and operating much better. Go out and decide for yourself. I was kind of thrown into it, yet it turned out to be four of the best years of my life.”

Baker McKenzie: “Norm is a seasoned professional who has demonstrated amazing skills throughout his career. His technical ability, management style and judgement have benefited Willis Towers Watson and earned Norm high levels of respect and loyalty from those that work with him, both internally and externally.”  —Jonathan Martin, Principal