Alongside a focus on organic growth and technology, the insurer’s medium-term strategy sees it bid to become a ‘destination workplace’

Axa UK and Ireland has defined talent attraction and retention as a key tenet of its current four-year strategy, with the business’ chief executive – Tara Foley – striving to “create an organisation that’s a go-to place for talent in the industry”.

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Foley explains that Axa’s UK and Ireland operation launched a new four-year strategy at the end of 2023 which is centred around three pillars – one of which is the overarching ambition to “continue our journey to maintain Axa as a destination workplace”.

For Foley, this means a combination of attracting “as many of the available workforce as possible and [making] sure that you reflect the communities you serve”, as well as “trying to forecast what skills we’ll need when [and] making sure we’ve defined the career paths for people with those skill sets and making sure we provide the right kind of training”.

As part of this, Foley plans to make “sure we have a diverse workplace that is flexible and that we’re embracing technology in the right way for colleagues as well as for customers”.

These diversity and inclusion (D&I) ambitions underpin the practical steps Foley has implemented in order to source and keep talent.

For example, as well as being a “passionate advocate” of gender equality “for years”, Foley tells Insurance Times that Axa UK and Ireland was accredited by anti-ageism business 55 Redefined in July 2023.

Established in September 2021, 55 Redefined provides training, benchmarking, consultancy services, recruitment advertising and a jobs board to help businesses become more age inclusive, in addition to supporting individuals aged over 50 in the workplace.

With many of the market’s talent attraction schemes focusing on new graduates and younger people starting their career journeys, Foley notes that this older, “hugely skilled” and potentially untapped demographic typically want “something slightly different from the workplace”.

She continues: “We need to think about how flexible we can be and how we create an environment where four generations can work alongside each other happily, each wanting slightly different things from the environment.”

Talent pipeline

Alongside attracting new joiners, Foley is also interested in the career development of her staff – this contributes to her “destination workplace” vision.

To help facilitate this, she has spearheaded the development of two internal training academies that have launched this year – this includes an underwriting academy for Axa’s commercial business, which launched in May 2024, as well as a data and artificial intelligence (AI) academy, which came to fruition in April 2024.

The virtual underwriting academy is based on feedback from more than 400 underwriters working in Axa’s commercial arm. Foley adds that feedback on this programme “is wonderful and we’re looking at how we can flex that across all of our other businesses”.

The data academy, meanwhile, aims to foster a stronger data culture across Axa UK and Ireland, seeking to improve employees’ understanding around the insurer’s current use of data, as well as highlighting potential data challenges and needs that have yet to be addressed.

To further promote career development opportunities, Foley is keen to flag the “unique advantage” Axa UK and Ireland has because of its “diverse nature”.

She explains: “We have a commercial business at scale. We have a retail business at scale. We have a health business at scale and we [are] in Ireland as well.

“We can offer career paths that circle through those businesses for certain disciplines, that offer a really satisfying and diverse set of experiences.”

Primary focuses

Running alongside this talent agenda, what other components are driving Foley’s strategic plan for Axa UK and Ireland?

The second pillar in Foley’s plan is around organic growth.

She lists a number of acquisitions the insurer has undertaken in recent years – including entering the Irish health insurance market with the purchase of Laya Healthcare last August, followed by attaining Healthcare Business Solutions UK in February 2024, as well as buying Ageas UK’s commercial lines business back in February 2022.

Although this M&A activity drove growth across Axa’s UK and Ireland business, Foley explains that “what we want to do now is consolidate everything that we have and look for the growth opportunities going forward. We will be trying to consolidate what we have and grow from it”.

As a caveat, however, she does add that Axa is “not ruling out acquisitions”.

The third and final pillar of Axa’s UK and Ireland strategy is “around the technical piece”.

Foley says: “In the UK and Ireland, we have done a lot of investments in our business over the last five years.

“We will continue to invest because AI is the big buzzword, but as everybody who is in insurance knows, AI is nothing new for this industry. We’ve been using machine learning and AI in pricing for 10, 15 years. So, we know how to do it.

“But generative AI offers a whole new plethora of potential. We will be doing what we can with that. The first obvious use cases are all around service and pricing and fraud detection. We’ll be investing to see where we can fully leverage capability there.”

According to IBM Research, generative AI refers to deep learning models that can generate high quality text, images and other content. The main way this is currently being deployed at Axa UK and Ireland is through the firm’s own internal version of ChatGPT, Secure GPT, which launched in July 2023.

Foley explains: “We want to make sure colleagues play around with [generative AI] and understand it because they will be the people that come up with the great ideas for how it’s applicable in interactions with customers. So, what we’ve done is we’ve launched Secure GPT, which is an Axa version of that technology and it’s absolutely fantastic. We’ve launched it for all colleagues.

“You can play around, you can ask it anything, you can use it to generate presentations. We’re encouraging colleagues to get to know this technology and we’ve already had a lot of really strong ideas.”

Since the launch of Foley’s action plan at the end of 2023, Axa UK and Ireland has implemented 12 generative AI use cases across its business divisions. Foley describes this as “great progress” because “once those use cases are tested in one business, [we] will flex them across all the businesses”.

Foley adds that this “technical excellence” pillar will be a particular focus for the remainder of 2024, especially “in pricing and claims”.

She says: “We’ve got a lot better at predictive data. We’ve got a lot better at technical pricing. We’ve got a lot better at claims – not just infrastructure, but operating models and the ability to glean real-time insights from the claims function and feed it directly into pricing.”

Axa’s strategy for the UK and Ireland aligns with the wider Axa Group’s 2024 to 2026 ‘Unlock the Future’ plan, which launched at the beginning of 2024.

Foley plans to “refresh” her three-pillar approach in line with the group’s strategic foundations of driving higher growth, scaling excellence and expanding Axa’s role in society by the end of the year, “but the core tenets” of her UK strategy “will remain the same”.

Quiet confidence

Despite her openness around Axa’s progress so far in its technology investment and talent development pillars, Foley is tight-lipped about the company’s progress in terms of growth.

“We’re seeing growth across the board – some of which is driven by premium increases, but some is driven by genuine volume increases,” she notes. “I don’t want to get too specific about the areas, but where we’re comfortable with growth, we’re seeing it.”

Foley is also pleased with Axa UK and Ireland’s financial results for 2024’s H1 – however, she is again vague on specific details she is comfortable sharing with the market.

She says: “We are on track to hit all the numbers that were in our plan. H1 is where we want it to be [and by] the end of the year, [we are] on track to hit all the numbers that we need to hit.

“We had turnarounds that we needed to do in retail that were very significant – this is a huge achievement. We’re very pleased with the direction of travel.

“We’re very happy with where we are and a lot of [this] has been driven by [our] focus on technical excellence, pricing, claims and our underwriting footprint. We’ve been hyper focused on that across our businesses since the middle of last year.”

A collaborative approach

At the time of writing, Foley is fast approaching her one-year anniversary as top boss of Axa UK and Ireland – a role she took on in September 2023 from Claudio Gienal after working as the insurer’s chief executive for its UK retail arm for nearly three years.

Reflecting on her first year in post, Foley describes her current job as “a very fulfilling role” that is “probably one of the best roles there is because of the diversity in [Axa’s] businesses [and geographies]”.

Being able to manage this business diversity plays to her strengths, as Foley explains that she has a very “collaborative” and “pacey” leadership style.

“I like working collaboratively – you get a better outcome, better solutions,” she says. “I’m really pleased at how the team is gelling together considering we’ve got quite a few new members.”

These new members include Paul Tombs, who joined the insurer in March 2024 as Axa Commercial’s director of SME intermediary business, retail intermediaries director Matt Field – who was appointed in January 2024 – and Foley’s replacement, Alain Zweibrucker, whose appointment was also effective from the beginning of this year.

Foley continues: “What is the point in [having a range of global businesses as] one entity unless you can leverage this via collaboration? My style is collaborative. I want to work with empowered leaders.”

In terms of the impact Foley wants to have as Axa UK and Ireland’s leader, this comes down to pushing the insurer to reach its “full potential” and grasping opportunities with both hands as they arise.

She explains: “My objective is to have the UK and Ireland [business] perform to its full capability for our customers, shareholders and colleagues. Our potential is huge. I want us to be performing at our full potential.

“We’re doing really well and I think we’ve [still] got more opportunity.”