AXA's Gamble A German CEO in Paris

Thomas Buberl has brought German-style efficiency to the French insurance giant AXA since taking the reins 18 months ago.

If you believe in stereotypes, it won’t be surprising to hear that German-born Thomas Buberl has focused on improving efficiency since becoming the head of insurance group AXA, making him one of the very few foreigners at the helm of a major French company.

Mr. Buberl was named the insurer’s chief executive officer in September 2016. Needless to say, not everyone in Paris agreed with the decision and questioned whether a German could actually run such a large French company. Mr. Buberl, the argument went, didn’t have the necessary networks, political contacts or relationships with other business leaders in the French capital.

His predecessor, Henri de Castries, known to be a Europhile, was appalled by those initial reactions, which he saw as an expression of nationalism that was completely outdated. Mr. Buberl, after all, had proven himself as head of AXA’s operations in Germany, where he rigorously restructured the company’s business. "At AXA, it’s talent that counts, not your passport," Mr. Castries said at the time.

Like any good German, he calls the new strategy one of “optimizing and rationalizing.”

In fact, Mr. Buberl fits nicely into the arc of AXA bosses over the years. Its founder, Claude Bébéar, built the company from a regional insurer into a major French player. Henri de Castries then grew the company beyond France’s borders, making it Europe’s second-largest insurer behind Germany's Allianz. In that sense, the choice of a foreign-born successor seems like a natural progression, though Mr. Buberl has made abundantly it clear over the past 18 months, both in public and internally, that he still views AXA as a French company.

Mr. Buberl believes one of his prorities is to make AXA fit for the digital future, a challenge for German and French financial firms alike. In this, he's found a readier playground in Paris, where insurtechs and fintechs are abundant, than in his home country, which has often struggled to unlock the potential of financial startups.

Although he refuses to be branded a "cost killer," Mr. Buberl has certainly brought an element of thrift with him to Paris. In November, he restructured the entire AXA organization to make it simpler, streamlining its many-layered structure into five geographical units (France, Europe, United States, Asia and International) and creating a single corporate center. Rather than focusing on 64 countries, he’s targeted just 16 for growth – 10 existing core markets, and six more thought to have high potential. Like any good German, he calls the new strategy one of “optimizing and rationalizing.”

Investors have so far responded well, and AXA's share price has climbed since Mr. Buberl took the reins. A plurality of AXA's shareholders are now located outside of France, so its therefore unsurprising that they have welcomed the company's strategy of internationalization.

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Mr. Buberl has also done his best to adopt that certain “je-ne-sais-quoi” attitude since moving to Paris. He speaks fluent French, albeit with a melodic drawl that comes from his home town of Cologne, and has made the obligatory positive noises about living in France's glamorous capital (he jogs through the Bois de Boulogne every day and loves driving past the Arc de Triomphe). Like a good French “patron,” he also appears regularly in the media, where he comments not just on insurance but sounds off on political topics ranging from France’s role in Europe to climate change.

It surely doesn’t hurt that he’s upbeat on Emmanuel Macron, and downbeat on Berlin these days. “When I left Germany 18 months ago to become head of AXA in Paris, people asked me: ‘Why are you leaving the most stable country in Europe to join the least stable one?’ Now, the situation is completely reversed!” he said in a recent interview with French magazine Les Echos.

That political engagement stands to benefit the company. In December, at the “One Planet” climate summit in Paris hosted by Mr. Macron, AXA said it would refuse to insure new coal power plants and would invest €12 billion in green investment projects by 2020. So much for the critics who thought a German couldn’t play the political connections in France.

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt's senior Paris correspondent. Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]