Quick facts

Age: 54 years old

Birthplace: South Georgia

Current residence: New York, NY



Corporate pay

Burns’ 2010 compensation as CEO of Mercer was $4.6 million.[1]

She was paid $256,256 in 2011 for serving on the Walmart Board of Directors.[2] She also owns about $1.2 million of Walmart stock.[3]

Real estate

Burns has a 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom home in Atlanta which she bought for $725,000 in 1997.[4] In 2011, Burns’ home Highlands, NC was worth $1,526,210.[5]

Educational and professional background


  • University of Georgia, Bachelors Degree in Business Administration, 1979
  • University of Georgia, Masters in Accountancy, 1980[6]

Professional life

In October 2011, Burns became the executive director of a newly formed retirement policy center under Marsh & McLennan Cos.[7] Burns was previously chairperson and CEO of another Marsh & McLennan subsidiary, Mercer.

Burns was named chair and CEO of Mercer, a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Companies, in September 2006. She joined Marsh & McLennan as Executive Vice President on March 1, 2006 and became the MMC’s Chief Financial Officer at the end of that month.[8]

Upon her appointment as CEO of Mercer, the New York Times pointed out the irony of Burns heading a unit “which advises companies on how much to pay their top officers,” given the controversy surrounding her departure from her previous role as CFO of Mirant Corporation.[9] “Ms. Burns, it should be noted, left a number of shareholders, creditors and employees at her previous employer, the Mirant Corporation, disgruntled over the amount she was paid while the company was in bankruptcy reorganization.”[10]

During her 20-month tenure at Mirant, an Atlanta-based energy company, Burns served as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, then as Chief Restructuring Officer, as the company went through Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Burns received $4.1 million while she was at Mirant and another $4.1 million in severance, the Times reported.

Similarly, Burns received criticism for the perks and pay she received in her departure from her previous employer, Delta Air Lines. Burns left her first job after college at Arthur Andersen to work for Delta in January 1999, where she worked her way up from VP for corporate taxes to CFO in her first two years. Burns was CFO of Delta at the time of September 11th, and stayed with the company until April 2004. At the time, Burns received praise for her the way she responded to the crisis following September 11th. The following January, the Atlanta Business Chronicle wrote, “She also commands a knowledge of finance that observers describe as “scary,” as well as a steely resolve that’s helped her face down more adversity in her two-year tenure at Delta Air Lines Inc. than some Atlanta CEOs have faced in careers spanning 20 years.”[11] In September 2005, Delta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote of Burns’ work at the company and perks she received:

Burns is no stranger to flaps over executive pay and perks.

In 2002, while at Delta, she helped the airline during its creation of controversial bankruptcy-proof pension trusts for about three dozen executives. That provided her with at least $1 million in a personal pension trust beyond the reach of creditors.

Around the same time, Burns also was among a long list of Delta executives who were paid hefty bonuses while the airline was losing money, cutting jobs and appealing for federal aid. That year, she was awarded a bonus of $846,000, on top of her $560,000 salary.[12]

In December 2005, Burns made headlines for fighting to keep the lifetime free first-class airfare awarded to her and her family when she left Delta, as the airline tried to rescind the benefit during its bankruptcy reorganization.  Burns was reportedly the only executive to challenge the loss of the flights.[13]

After taking on the role of CEO at Mercer, Burns did a few interviews where she talked about the importance of “human capital” and empowering leaders. In an interview published in September 2010, Burns talked about her experience at Arthur Andersen: “Andersen had 2,000 partners, and all of them were expected to be leaders. That’s important because when leadership is distributed to that extent, better opportunities exist to grow more leaders and to have them develop deeper and broader leadership competencies.”[14]

Later in the interview, she goes on to say, “By contrast, it’s really dangerous if the top of the organization owns the strategy and everyone else is told to go execute.”[15]

Corporate boards

Burns joined the board of Walmart in 2003,[16] and she serves as the chair of the Strategic Planning and Finance Committee. Burns and presiding director James Breyer have come under criticism recently from Change to Win Investment Group for their classification as independent directors despite having “significant related-party transactions that call their independence into question.”[17]

In October 2011, Burns joined the Goldman Sachs board of directors.[18]

Burns is also on the board of Cisco Systems, Inc, where she is also classified as an independent director and serves on the Compensation and Management Development and Finance committees.[19]

Political giving

Federal donations

Over the years she has contributed to her employers’ political action committees and Democratic Party committees and Democrats running for president, including $2,000 to John Kerry in 2004, $2,300 to Hillary Clinton in 2008, and $250 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2007.[20]

Community connections

Burns is the Treasurer of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.


[1] Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc, proxy statement, filed with the SEC 31 Mar 2011.

[3] Based on reported ownership of 20,383 shares as of March 30, 2012 (http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/104169/000119312512163664/d264672ddef14a.htm) and WMT’s adjusted closing price of $59.07 per share on May 1, 2012 (http://finance.yahoo.com/q/hp?s=WMT+Historical+Prices)

[4] http://web.co.dekalb.ga.us/PropertyAppraisal/realDisplay.asp?PID=18%20001%2003%20015


[6] http://www.mercer.com/executive-profile.htm?siteLanguage=100&idExecutive=13543003#

[7] http://irnews.mmc.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=113872&p=RssLanding&cat=news&id=1613708

[8] http://people.forbes.com/profile/m-michele-burns/19664

[9] http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C07E6DC1730F932A35753C1A9609C8B63&ref=mirantcorporation

[10] http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C07E6DC1730F932A35753C1A9609C8B63&ref=mirantcorporation

[11] Woods, Walter. “Delta’s Burns shines in crisis.” Atlanta Business Chronicle. 4 Jan 2002.

[12] Grantham, Russell and Matt Kempner. “Ex-Delta exec fights to keep free flights.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 6 Dec 2005.

[13] Grantham, Russell and Matt Kempner. “Ex-Delta exec fights to keep free flights.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 6 Dec 2005.

[14] Galagan, Pat and Tony Bingham. “Trial by Fire.” T + D Magazine. Sept 2010.

[15] Galagan, Pat and Tony Bingham. “Trial by Fire.” T + D Magazine. Sept 2010.

[16] http://investors.walmartstores.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=112761&p=irol-govboard

[17] http://i.bnet.com/blogs/ctw-to-wmt-may-16-2011-final.pdf

[18] http://www2.goldmansachs.com/who-we-are/leadership/board-of-directors/02-m.michele.burns.html

[19] http://investor.cisco.com/committees.cfm

[20] Center for Responsive Politics. Accessed 12 Jul 2011.