Season 2 - Ep. 9 | Trust Your Gut: AXA’s Thomas Buberl Talks Transformation and Reinvention

Redefiners Podcast
Hosted By:
May 25, 2022 | 36 min
Our guest
Thomas Buberl - Chief Executive Officer and Director of AXA

“If you have convictions and if they are strong and if your team is behind them, you can also master very stormy times.”

When Thomas Buberl became CEO of global insurance giant AXA, he was in the unique position of taking over the reins of an already successful company. In the end, he made that company even better—not just as a business, but as a positive force in society, even going so far as to remove AXA from certain profitable but pernicious industries. In this podcast, Thomas shares some of the secrets to his success, a consistent theme of which is the ability to stand by one’s convictions, even when short-term pressures make that anything but easy.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from Thomas in this episode, in his words (edited for length and clarity):

Thomas’s Redefiner Moment: From the concert hall to the board room

I realized my life was defined and redefined in good moments but also in bad moments. At one point, I was on track to become a professional organ player. One part of the exam was to be very good at singing, which I was not and am still not. And so I could not continue this wonderful experience and profession, which forced me to go somewhere else.

On making tough short-term decisions for long-term gains

When I started as CEO, I realized that the company had a great culture, history, and people. But when I looked at our business profile, I saw that 80% was in life insurance—which, when interest rates are low, is not a great position to be in.

And so we changed the company from 80% life insurance to 10% life insurance, keeping the same revenue of €100 billion. There were massive transactions involved. One was quoting a company and buying another company. Unfortunately I had to buy before I quoted it, which was a very big surprise to our shareholders. Our stock price dropped by 10%. We had a massive storm against us by shareholders and analysts.

What’s quite interesting is that the same people who criticized this massive transformation are now praising it. So I think you need to have the conviction that what you do is right in the long term, even though it may be perceived as a surprise in the short term. And remembering that it’s all a matter of perspective.

On the role of technology to improve health insurance and outcomes

Health costs are increasing three, four times as the GDP grows every year, which means, by definition, that fewer and fewer people will be able to be insured every year. The only way to go against this is if we are helping our patients live better lives. So our business model in the next phase needs to move from claims payment being in the center of our relationship, to claims payment being the exception of our relationship. And that's where digital services and technology play a massive role. We recently launched a platform called Digital Health Platform together with Microsoft in which we provide symptom checking, telemedicine, and digital help to follow chronic diseases.

The same is being applied on all the industrial risks. For example, you can use technology and the internet of things to help improve issues around damage to shipping containers and goods without having a claim.

On “fence-sitters” and taking a stand against climate change

The fence-sitter model is not very sustainable because you can hide in the short term, but you cannot hide in the medium term. At the end of the day, when we talk about sustainability, we don't talk about, what is the check that you have filled in, or what are the very nice slides that you have produced? It's about results. And so as an investor, as an underwriter, I will want to know from you, "Okay, what's your plan? How exactly do you get there? Which initiative, which measurement, which timeframe?"

It is not an advisable strategy to sit on the fence. Come down and play the game.



Thomas Buberl

Thomas Buberl has been Chief Executive Officer and Director of AXA since September 1st, 2016. He started as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group for the banking & insurance sector both in Germany and internationally. From 2005 to 2008, he worked for the Winterthur Group (acquired by AXA in 2006) as member of the Management Board of Winterthur in Switzerland, first as Chief Operating Officer and then as Chief Marketing and Distribution Officer. He then joined Zurich Insurance Group as Chief Executive Officer for Switzerland.

At the beginning of 2012, Thomas Buberl joined AXA as Chief Executive Officer of AXA Germany and member of the AXA Executive Committee. In March 2015, he also joined the AXA Management Committee and was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Global Business Line for the Health Business, and, in January 2016, of the Global Business Line for Life & Savings. From March to September 2016, he was deputy CEO (“Directeur général adjoint”) of AXA.

Thomas Buberl holds a Master of Economics degree from WHU Koblenz (Germany), a MBA from Lancaster University (UK) and a PhD in Economics from the University of St.Gallen (Switzerland). He has been distinguished as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.Thomas Buberl sits on the Board of Directors of IBM, the Supervisory Board of the Bertelsmann Verwaltungs Gesellschaft (BVG), and the Board of Trustees of the World Economic Forum. A German, Swiss and French citizen, Thomas Buberl was born in 1973.

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