‘Any idiot can grow their business in insurance: you’re just cheap and you write a lot’

“You can’t look back.” Amanda Blanc smiles in her first interview since leaving Towergate for AXA, a development that shook the market at the end of last year. “You could live a life of regret – but I don’t regret coming here. This is a phenomenal company. I’m sure when Towergate floats it will be too, but this is the world’s largest insurer. So, no, I don’t regret anything.” Ouch …

Blanc is formidable. She has a fantastic reputation among insurers and brokers, and is widely respected for her intelligence, straight talking and sheer energy. Six weeks into the job at AXA, she has taken the flea-ridden insurer by the scruff of the neck and shaken it down. The resulting restructure will see a raft of new appointments, some high-profile departures and around 110 redundancies. For Blanc, it’s the first step on a journey that should see AXA – the “sleeping giant”, she calls it – reawaken, and get back to the good old days of stomping round the market.

But first there are some tricky questions to answer. Blanc was the heir apparent to the Towergate empire: she was all set to take over from chief executive Andy Homer as the company prepared for a major private equity deal and flotation. Why walk away?

“I am a person who gets bored really quickly,” she says in rapid-fire Welsh tones. “I’m a person who likes change, who likes to fix things and be part of something that is really moving forward. Once something becomes a care and maintenance role, I’m probably not the right skill set for that.”

It’s a bit of a strange answer, because there’s no denying that Towergate is a dynamic business with big change on the cards. Was Blanc cynical about the plans for flotation? She pauses in her quickfire answers for the first time. “I guess I just thought … I didn’t see that as being more exciting than this. I did think it was going to happen – there were conversations happening. I know Peter [Cullum, chairman] and Andy [Homer, chief executive] wanted me to stay. We had a fantastic five years, it was great fun. But there’s a time when everyone needs to move on, and I felt that this was more exciting. They will disagree – that’s fine.”

What did Homer say when Blanc announced her departure? “That’s printable?” she chuckles (Homer’s not known for mincing his words). “He was disappointed, they were surprised – but ultimately everyone moves on at some point.”

There was a bit more to it than that. Blanc’s decision to leave was a huge blow for the consolidator. While she and the Towergate crowd have been careful to be scrupulously polite about one another in public, this hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theorists muttering that she got out at the crucial juncture because she knew something was wrong. Did she?

“I couldn’t see anything wrong at Towergate – God, I was there for five years, I was part of Towergate, so no, that’s not true,” she says. “You can see something wrong with every business. There are things wrong here; of course there are things wrong at Towergate. There were things that needed to be fixed and they fixed them to some extent with the Advent deal.”

Blanc is clearly keen to talk about her new employer as well as her old one, but just one more question before we move on. How is the relationship with Towergate now? “I get the odd witty comment from Andy – paternal advice, though he doesn’t like it when I say that. We have a good relationship with Towergate, of course: we trade with them. Clive [Nathan, underwriting boss] and I have known each other for a very long time. Me coming here has not affected that relationship.” Blanc pauses, and after a moment’s thought adds: “It will be different, of course.”

Indeed. But enough about Towergate. Whatever her reasons, Blanc decided last year to take one of the most talked-about and challenging roles in the market: commercial chief executive of AXA. The insurer has barely been out of the headlines for the past two years, all too often for the wrong reasons. Former general insurance chief executive Philippe Maso struggled to connect with the broker market and was unceremoniously booted out when Paul Evans took over the top job from Nicolas Moreau last year. AXA sold its life business to Resolution, raising questions about its commitment to the UK (Blanc: “Utter nonsense; we’re completely committed”).

And Evans inherited appalling numbers: AXA UK and Ireland reported a 44% drop in underlying earnings to £131m for 2010, with an overall combined operating ratio of 105.3%. Landing Blanc was a massive coup for the former life boss, who has handed her a clear mandate for growth: “profitable growth”.

With characteristic clear sightedness, Blanc started with a management overhaul: new appointments were Matthew Reed as managing director, intermediary, and Alasdair Stewart as commercial director; while David Williams was promoted to handle underwriting as well as claims, and Stuart Reid was confirmed as chief executive of Bluefin.

Blanc has brought Bluefin closer to the main AXA business, combining the HR, IT and finance director roles, and is widely expected to significantly increase AXA’s share of Bluefin’s book. “We want a stronger trading relationship: having the trading in the same place it was before AXA bought those businesses; it doesn’t look like that.”

Growth, meanwhile, will come not from chasing down rates, she promises emphatically, but from improving conversions and developing new products. In a market where rivals are offering commission enhancements and cut-price deals, how is she going to achieve that’? “Any idiot can grow their business in insurance, because written premium is the easiest thing to get – you’re just cheap and you write a lot of it. If that started happening here, I’d be exceptionally worried,” she says. “You’ve got to be completely clear about the things that make you money, the things you understand and your ability to underwrite them.”

Clarity is one thing Blanc does brilliantly. There may still be some unanswered questions around her decision to leave Towergate – or maybe five years really was just long enough, and she likes to do the unexpected. Either way, in the commercial market right now, Blanc is the biggest story in town – so don’t look back, and don’t look down.

For more, read our story: Blanc unveils new-look commercial team at AXA.