AXA's acquisition this week of Stuart Alexander and Layton Blackham will provide the springboard for the purchase of further brokers, the insurer's chief executive said.

Peter Hubbard said the two acquisitions were a key part of the company's ambition of toppling Norwich Union as the leading SME insurer in the UK.

"We are number two in the SME sector. We have built our position significantly in recent years, but to make our 2012 ambitions [of being a market leader] we need to increase our understanding of customer relationships and extend our distribution capabilities.

"These transactions will enable AXA UK to diversify its source of revenues and, at the same time, benefit from the growth of the broker business."

He said the two brokers, which will be combined into a single operation controlling gross written premiums of £200m, will remain an independent broking operation with "considerable autonomy".

It was not clear how much AXA paid for the two companies.

Hubbard indicated that further acquisitions would be sought through the new operation. "The ideal would be for more brokers to join them to extend AXA's distri- bution footprint across the UK."

Chris Blackham, chief executive of Layton Blackham, will become chairman of the new operation, while Stuart Reid, chief executive of Stuart Alexander, will become the chief executive of the brokers.

The two brokers will continue to trade under their existing names, but will be rebranded in the future.

Reid said: "Now that we have the strength of AXA behind us we will be better able to expand this new business and bring on new customers, as well as improve profitability."

Recent months have seen a string of acquisitions by insurers of inter- mediaries, but these have mainly been in the personal lines sector.

Grant Ellis, chief executive of the Broker Network said other commer- cial insurers would look to follow AXA's lead. "All top brokers will be targets."

Towergate Partnership chief executive Andy Homer said insurers would be "reviewing their distri- bution strategies". He added: "The main battle is around distribution."

AXA UK acquired both firms through its subsidiary Venture Preference which already owned 38.9% of Layton Blackham.