The maverick professional is known for the unexpected – which is why his return to AXA shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Neither should any future move, he tells Ellen Bennett. Portrait by Wilde Fry

Paul Meehan is wearing a shiny AXA badge on his jacket lapel. He chuckles when it is pointed out, a twinkle in his eye. “They can’t believe I wear it,” he says in his strident Yorkshire tones.

That’s not too surprising, but these days Meehan is an AXA man to the core. He sold his business, Smart & Cook, to the insurer in early 2007 and left the company nine months later when he was passed over for the top broker job. As he served out his gardening leave, the market’s leading brokers deluged him with job offers.

But Meehan doesn’t like to do what’s expected, and he electrified the market with the most unlikely move possible: a return to AXA four months ago as customer experience director,

in charge of sorting out the insurer’s abysmal service to brokers. In his first interview since the news broke, he told Insurance Times how the poacher turned into a gamekeeper – and gave a hint of some more surprises in store.

So, first up, what happened when Stuart Reid was chosen to head Venture Preference, the AXA broking arm, which was formed out of the acquisitions of Meehan’s company, Reid’s Stuart Alexander and Layton Blackham, run by Chris Blackham? For a while the three were co-chief executives, but that was never going to last.

As the most experienced contender and the man who had bought the biggest business to the table, everyone expected Meehan to land the post. Even he did. “I had no doubt I would get the job, and I was hugely disappointed that I didn’t,” he admits now.

He makes oblique references to the strong relationship between Peter Hubbard, then chief executive of AXA, and Reid. “I think Peter wanted Stuart to lead it, and hoped that Chris and I would stay and fly wingman with him,” he says.

“But I said, ‘I want the job, and if I don’t get it, I’m off’. I think he was taken aback. But I didn’t want to play second fiddle to anyone in that broking business.”

Meehan was true to his threat and left AXA at the end of 2007. Pretty soon, though, the disappointment waned. “After a couple of hours, I thought – what a relief. Suddenly I was able to do all those things I wanted to do.” Such as learn to play piano and join a second band.

The trouble is, Meehan’s a bit of a workaholic. He immediately set up a consulting company – he was in his office in Bradford the Monday after he left AXA – and collected offers from the great and good of the broking world.

He won’t talk numbers, but he clearly pocketed a hefty pay-off from AXA, not to mention the sale price of his business. As a result, there was no need to take another job. But he reckons that staying active keeps you healthy – “there’s a thin line between stress and excitement”.

Perhaps the personality trait that marks out leaders is the same one that keeps them going: “Phillip Hodson, Brendan McManus, Chris Giles, Stuart Reid – they’re all the same,” he says. “None of them needs to do it, but they have a ‘burning platform’ approach to business. Everything’s like, ‘We’ve got to sort this out or we’re doomed’.”

He admits that “insecurity” drives him to succeed. “Isn’t that just funny,” he muses. “I’ve never needed to work at the pace I have done but, for me, it’s the only way.”

So there Meehan was, enjoying his garden and his piano, when suddenly Peter Hubbard departed AXA and was replaced by Philippe Maso. Maso, formerly AXA’s chief financial officer, had come across Meehan in the process of buying his business. Clearly impressed with the ebullient broker, he invited him to dinner in London.

“He said, ‘I’d value your advice about how I’m structuring the business’. I thought, this is a bit strange. He said, ‘One of the areas AXA is falling down on is service. We’re bottom of the pile and we’ve got to turn this round. If we don’t get this right, we’ve got a very fragile business model.’”

Maso promised Meehan his full backing across the organisation on tough decisions and the chief executive has been true to his word. Meehan is building a little empire at AXA now, no doubt treading on people’s toes with that smile on his face and twinkle in his eye.

In fact, given that the first four months seem to have gone well and there is much to be done at AXA, no one would be surprised to see that empire expand.

“I’m the unreasonable guy, the guy that asks all the questions all the time,” he says. “I said to the guys, customers are everywhere, there are issues we have to fix all over our business. I will move on to your turf, I’ll consult with you and tell you what I’m doing, but I need an open door. I need that help and commitment to change.”

What does a “customer experience director” do? Well, he talks to the staff in call centres; he’s trying to sort out the insurer’s well known problems with documentation; he’s replacing outdated IT and telephone systems ... and so on.

No doubt he’s doing a bit of behind-the-scenes schmoozing with his old muckers in the broker world too – it must be good for Maso to know he can draw on Meehan’s contacts and experience. One of the first things he did was write to AXA’s brokers and ask them to tell him about any service problems they encountered. Unfortunately for AXA, these actions don’t seem to have filtered through yet. The insurer did badly in Newsquest Specialist Media’s broker service study again this year, coming bottom in the top 20 league table. But a number of respondents did acknowledge the management’s efforts to improve – and next year will be the real decider.

Meehan is disappointed but philosophical about this year’s survey, and anxious it does not damage staff morale. “We’ve got fantastic people,” he says repeatedly. “And we’re aware as a management group that we have some serious legacy issues to deal with, but I am ruthlessly good at getting things done. So we will fix it.”

What does success look like? Meehan will measure his performance on broker feedback. “We have to get better results in these polls,” he says, referring to Newsquest’s research. “The degree of our improvement will be aligned with our degree of satisfaction or achievement.”

It’s a Herculean task. For several years AXA has been dogged by complaints of unskilled staff, documentation going astray, phones never being answered. It’s become such an industry axiom that most people snigger if they hear “AXA” and “customer service” in the same sentence.

Meehan wants to sort it quickly and, however his role at AXA may expand, it won’t be his last job. “I reckon I’ll be here for 18 months, or two years,” he says. “That’s the time that I’ll need to make a difference. By that time, if I haven’t made a difference, I’ll never be able to.”

And then he’ll be off again: “There are lots of opportunities in the broking arena.”

Who knows whether Meehan will achieve his ambitions for AXA, where he’ll pop up next and what badge will be adorning his lapel this time next year. Just one thing is certain: he is going to keep stirring things up.