Henri de Castries

Chairman and CEO, AXA

"As a worldwide group and leading brand, AXA can leverage its size, global presence and visibility to improve customer experience. This is why we must ensure that we swiftly disseminate our expertise across all of our countries."

Last year, you spoke about developing service offerings that work internationally. Could you give us insight into the service offerings you have developed which address specific needs in local markets?

Our core business is protecting people, which entails meeting their ever-evolving needs and expectations, wherever they may be. Some of these needs are universal which is why we have designed multi-country services. On the other hand, being attentive implies also adapting our service offerings to local specificities and habits.

To provide a concrete example, the SME market was identified as a strategic segment in the Mediterranean region, especially because it was under-insured. One of the key protection needs of SMEs is to ensure business continuity when a crisis hits. To address this need and make sure our insurance proposal is value creating, we offer to pay 50% of the claims amount within the 48 hours that follow the claim, thereby ensuring the company will be able to continue its business. As a result, several of our entities in this region have gained very strong positions in this segment. For example, AXA Portugal is currently the second largest insurer of SMEs with a local market share of 18%.

Another example concerns the “Home care after a hospital stay” service I spoke about last year. When customers take out health insurance, they want to be sure they are given the most relevant care and support. The “Home care after a hospital stay” service is our answer to this need. While the relevance of such a service has been confirmed since the launch of this product in many markets, it has appeared that the expectations in Asia are different: many affluent customers have no need for such a domestic care service after a hospitalization because often they already have domestic helpers in house. What they do not have, however, is guaranteed access to the right medical professionals. It also takes a long time for them to get treated correctly. Therefore, we launched the “right treatment service” which directs our customers to the appropriate doctor based on each individual situation.

As AXA is expanding its reach across the globe, how do you strike a balance between staying true to your brand values and communicating a consistent message, while at the same time remaining relevant in the cultural context of each market?

As a worldwide group and leading brand, AXA can leverage its size, global presence and visibility to improve customer experience. This is why we must ensure that we swiftly disseminate our expertise across all of our countries. A service developed to solve a problem considered as classic in one country can be perceived as innovative and cutting-edge in another. This being said, it is true that remaining relevant everywhere supposes ensuring there is a local dimension to the way we practice insurance.

The empowering nature of our corporate culture allows us to effectively leverage our global presence while also taking local specificities into account. Rather than attempting to exert control and demand uniformity from the top down, we define common objectives based on our values. It is then up to the local teams to decide how to implement the strategy and adapt the offer to their markets. The Group’s history makes it easier to promote this decentralized culture, as one of the key drivers of its expanding footprint is its external acquisition strategy. We have always been adaptable and adept at integrating people from different backgrounds.

We do, however, want to be perceived as “one AXA brand” all across the globe, and strive for consistency in our brand positioning, brand identity, tone of voice and brand values. This is why we have engaged our marketing and brand community in a new way of working together transversally. We are now developing regional and global advertising campaigns around services and solutions answering universal customer needs.

At the end of the day, it is all about empowering our people and trusting them. It is not always easy and implies promoting a constructive and collaborative management style. Maintaining a culture of trust and achievement is a top priority for all AXA Group management team members.

How can a brand like AXA increase its relevance in an era where consumers are increasingly price focused?

Today’s environment is intensively competitive and our customers are more and more informed and demanding. This is why we need to offer them products and services they see as differentiating. Providing excellent service can make the difference: satisfied customers will be more loyal, buy more products and recommend AXA. When we offer quality services, our customers can put our brand promise to the test and AXA can earn their preference. In this regard, our interests and those of our customers are fully aligned: the better our quality of service, the more our customer base will expand.

A good example of this differentiation strategy is the “AXA votre service” program developed by AXA France. This companywide transformation was initiated by and built on the convictions of the CEO, and its ambition is translated through a “Quality of Service Charter” and a Comparison site.

The Charter is composed of four commitments: simplicity on a daily basis, adapted advice in the long term, engaged presence in key moments, and continuous attentive listening. We put the Charter online and presented it in a friendly and dynamic way to explain our commitments and provide 20 elements of proof of what we are already offering to make our promises come true. We will regularly update this list in response to customer feedback and surveys.

The Comparison site is a true innovation in the French market. Many websites are available to compare prices between different insurers but none offers to compare services, even though 94% of French people do consider service as an important component of an insurance contract. On this website, you can choose the services you would like to have when facing a “claim” and the search engine gives you the top three insurers providing the best services on the market. With this new website, we have a three-fold ambition. We want to increase customer awareness on the importance of service instead of price; continuously improve AXA services by collecting customer expectations and permanently analyze what is offered by other players in the market and, last but not least, dare to compare, because we are determined to become the preferred service provider in the market.

4. Leveraging transparent dialogue with customers through social media initiatives has been a priority for financial services brands since the 2008 recession. How have global initiatives like AXA People Protectors paid off for the brand?

One year after its launch, our AXA People Protectors Facebook page is followed by half a million people around the world. We have designed this page to express the essence of our business: prevent, protect and assist. This guides and motivates our employees and partners in their daily work, and we would like to promote these “People Protectors” whose desire it is to earn the trust that our customers have placed in us. .

This dialogue with customers strongly contributes to humanizing the AXA brand. The engagement level of the community is well above both our expectations and the average level of the industry. In France, it has had a measurable and positive impact on the brand, with a six point increase when people are asked whether they would recommend AXA and a seven point increase with regards to the trust they have in AXA. Although we were not first-movers amongst the insurance brands to establish a dialogue on Facebook, today we are one of the most popular and active ones.

What are the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for AXA and for the industry at large?

Think about the number of new cars to be insured or the evolution of the over 60-year old population to be covered over the next 20 years, both in mature and new economies. The answer is in the billions. Insurance is one of society's fundamental needs, so the long term opportunities for AXA are huge.Of course, the macro-environment is challenging, maybe more than ever. I am fundamentally convinced that we are undergoing much more than just a crisis—what we have been experiencing over the last five years is a transformation of the world’s dynamics.

To mitigate the risks that come along with this transformation, and to seize the opportunities it offers, we need to stay focused on what is in our hands: improve our access to customers, increase the strength of our brand and consolidate our corporate culture.

For me, access to customers is the most significant challenge. Our customers are changing, forcing traditional companies to transform themselves. We need to go and meet our customers wherever they are—on their computers, their smartphones, over the phone; and we need to provide them with the appropriate quality of service no matter what channel they use. This digital transformation is no longer an option—it’s a must. It is at the heart of our strategy and concerns all businesses. No part of the value chain is left out.

Another key challenge for the industry as a whole, and for AXA in particular, is to speak more clearly and warmly about what our business does, including its role, its qualities, its effectiveness, the value it creates and its contribution to society. We can be proud not only because we are successful, but also because our business is an essential component of the engine of economic growth and has what we call at AXA a “noble purpose.” Explaining this dual role is easier said than done, but I believe we are on the right track thanks to the time and resources we have allocated to clarifying our brand identity and engaging with our customers.

The last challenge is clearly our corporate culture. In this ever-evolving world, you of course need to have a clear vision of what you want to be as a company and where you want to go. But to execute this drawing on the wall, you need a very strong and common culture. It is something that is in our hands and I think that, over the long term, it is probably the only thing that can differentiate us from our competitors: our people, the teams they make up and how they bring their ideas to life. As far as how we’ll get there—it is a journey, not a destination!

  • About Henri de Castries

    Henri de Castries began his career in the French Finance Ministry Inspection Office, auditing government agencies from 1980 to 1984. In 1984, he joined the French Treasury Department where, in 1986, he played an active role in several privatizations before being appointed to oversee foreign exchange markets and balance of payments for the Treasury.

    In 1989, he joined AXA's Corporate Finance Division. In 1991, he was named Corporate Secretary, responsible for dealing with the legal aspects of the reorganization and merger of Compagnie du Midi with and into the AXA Group. Two years later, he was appointed Senior Executive Vice President for the Group's asset management, financial and real-estate businesses. In 1994, he assumed the additional role of overseeing North American and UK operations. In 1996, Henri de Castries played an active role both in preparing for the UAP merger and in managing the subsequent integration of the two groups. In 1997, he was appointed Chairman of The Equitable Companies (which later became AXA Financial).

    Henri de Castries was Chairman of the AXA Management Board from May of 2000 to April of 2010. Since April 2010, following a modification of the corporate governance structure, he has been Chairman and CEO of the Group.

    Henri de Castries studied business at HEC and obtained a law degree (1976) before graduating from ENA (Ecole nationale d'administration) in 1980. In addition to his professional duties, Henri de Castries sits on the board of the Association pour l‘aide aux jeunes infirmes, an organization dedicated to helping disabled youth, and is chairman of AXA Hearts in Action, AXA's volunteer community outreach program.