Paul Evans pulled off an unexpected coup in recruiting former Towergate boss Amanda Blanc to AXA’s ailing commercial operation – and it’s left many in the industry sensing a renaissance in the air
“Absolute rubbish”, Amanda Blanc told Insurance Times, when asked last month about rumours she was returning to AXA as commercial boss.
Certainly, Towergate was confident its commander-in-arms was staying put, while AXA’s chance of prising away Blanc looked slim. But just a few weeks later AXA pulled off an audacious coup by signing up the highly respected Blanc, leaving Towergate to put on a brave face.
Securing Blanc is a huge achievement for newly installed group chief executive Paul Evans, and his second high-profile management change since taking over in August. The first involved the departure of UK chief Philippe Maso.
Blanc’s departure is a blow for Towergate, but the consolidator has remained upbeat, rapidly overhauling its management and pressing ahead with plans to refinance next year.
Its former chief will slot in nicely at AXA, having previously held senior distribution and customer service roles at the French insurer. “She’s intelligent, well organised and experienced. Staff will like her firm but fair approach,” said one source. “She’ll be in a fantastically unique position, because she’s had both broker training and insurer training. She’ll bring that broker connection to AXA, which some insurers lack.”
Evans has paid big money for Blanc, and he’ll want to see results. She has a huge job on her hands that not many will envy: as well as sorting out AXA’s plummeting commercial book and troubled service, she’s in charge of broking arm Bluefin and will have some big decisions to make about its future.
Her first task, though, will be to win back market share. So the big question will be: where will Blanc get her growth from in the ferociously competitive SME market?
A source says: “She’ll have to scrub up some of the underwriting skill-set to make it work, but there’s premium out there. I think Zurich and Brit have lost their way of late. Aviva is always there to have a go at because of its size. I think the Allianz set-up is going to take some beating because they’ve got great expertise in their underwriting. RSA will be very hard because they’re one of the best in town.
“Having worked with Towergate, which has its own managing general agency, I think she knows what she’s doing and perhaps she’ll be able to get back some of that old MGA business AXA lost, direct.
“I’d also say AXA is quite narrow in what it underwrites. She might want to flex her muscles in areas like professional liability insurance.”
Blanc will almost certainly want to bring in her own team. That could leave some AXA staff sweating over their future – although she is not allowed to approach Towergate staff for at least 12 months.
AXA will need exceptional underwriters to achieve profitable growth in a soft market, so that could mean Blanc targets the likes of Allianz and Zurich for staff.
To please brokers, she’ll also have to keep cracking the whip in customer service. AXA has been dogged with a reputation for poor service, although former customer service director Paul Meehan and claims boss David Williams made strides in improving this area.
Brokers will also want to see some consistency. The Fighting Fit scheme, which offers brokers more beneficial commission deals, has gone down well, so they’ll want to see that kind of innovation on a regular basis.
On the consolidator front, there should be ample opportunity for growth. Blanc might be able to exploit her connections with Towergate to drive up premium with the consolidator.
Even though emotions are high after the split, both parties are trying to keep the relationship amicable.
Blanc hinted as much in her farewell statement, saying: “I would like to thank both Peter Cullum and Andy Homer for their superb support for me over the past five years and look forward to working with them in my new capacity.”
If AXA is looking to improve its customer service performance, it might want to strengthen its ties with Jelf, which has strong relationships with its customers. Jelf insurance chief Phil Barton is also a former AXA man, who worked in the marketing and sales department.
Bluefin is one consolidator Blanc will definitely want to work with closely. There’s still a lot of mileage left in placing business through the AXA-owned operation.
Bluefin chief executive Stuart Reid said: “Amanda, with her prominence, is a huge fillip for Bluefin. It will be really good to have someone who understands our business. The potential for our two businesses is huge. I have no doubt that together we will be able to unlock that potential much more successfully than in the past.”
Perhaps Blanc’s greatest strength lies in her reputation. There’s a huge amount of goodwill in the industry for her – brokers will be all eyes and ears when she meets them.
Barbon chief executive Martin Oliver said: “It’s very positive for us. We think she is a quality operator who knows her way around the industry. And having been around that extra mile, she’ll know the change ahead for her.”
“AXA tends to change its spots, particularly in terms of consistency,” Oliver adds. “It seems they blow hot one minute and cold the next. So some consistency and quality is overdue. She’s the right sort of person to deliver that.”
An ebullient Evans certainly believes he’s got the right person, “Amanda has an impressive track record and we look forward to the dynamism she will bring to the development of our commercial lines businesses. She has a strong mandate to deliver a strategy that transforms our service to brokers, develops the strategic synergies with Bluefin, and thus achieves strong, profitable growth.”
Blanc’s appointment means Evans has laid the foundations for AXA to compete with the likes of Aviva and RSA as a top insurer.
He has eliminated Maso’s former position of UK chief executive, instead creating two roles: Steve Hardy leading personal lines and Blanc overseeing commercial.
They have their work cut out. While personal lines is booming on the back of Swiftcover’s growth and the hardening private motor, the bodily injury threat will need to be watched closely. And Blanc’s arrival heralds a shake-up in commercial.
Her move might have been a blow for Towergate, but it could mark the start of AXA’s renaissance. IT