My biggest mistake: Claude Bebear, chairman of AXA

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The Independent Online
Claude Bebear

As chairman of AXA, which owns AXA Equity & Law in the UK, he heads the world'sfourth largest insurance group. An avowed internationalist, he founded AXA 'university' to teach managers from three continents a common business language.

MY BIGGEST mistake occurred in 1987, when we tried unsuccessfully to take over Royale Belge, the leading insurance company in Belgium. We already had a small presence in the market and were keen to expand it. Royale Belge, a professionally managed casualty and life company, seemed the right partner.

We had decided that the successful insurance companies of the future would need to be large and internationally diversified. Large, because customers would demand the greatest security for their most importantsavings, and international because risk needs to be geographically diversified. We also believed that truly integrated international companies would be able to share knowledge and experience, while maintaining the best of local traditions. Unfortunately, we failed to communicate these beliefs when we first approached Royale Belge.

With hindsight, perhaps we had become a victim of that excessively transactional period. But whatever the reason, we were too aggressive. In particular, we bought shares in Royale Belge without warning, which set the alarm bells ringing.

The truth is that we failed to do our homework. We were virtually unknown in Belgium, but we did not take the trouble to introduce ourselves properly. Worst of all, we did not get across the message that our way of working is to think globally but act locally. To Royale Belge, we must have seemed threatening and insufficiently in tune with both the country's and the company's culture.

In the end, we had to withdraw. We sold our stake at a profit, but immediate financial gain was not the objective. Our international growth strategy is long-term, and in this regard we failed.

I learned a lot from that experience, much of which was put to good use when we moved into the US market. We took the time to visit insurance commissioners, senators and the press, explaining our strategy and way of working. The culmination was the go-ahead in 1991 to invest dollars 1bn in The Equitable, America's second largest insurer.

The success of this investment (the shares we bought have risen from dollars 9 to dollars 29 just in the past year) has as much to do with the financial aspects of the deal as the quality of our relationship with The Equitable's management.

The marriage of our two companies was not instant, but has developed. The analysts seem to have recognised this and given their blessing.

As a result of these experiences, I have become increasingly sceptical about the long-term value of 'instant deals' - particularly those struck in hostile circumstances. It has undoubtedly influenced our thinking.

For example, we are now looking more closely at partnership arrangements, such as the relationship we recently formed with Sime Darby in South East Asia. But whatever the structure of the deal, personal relationships will always be critical.

Inevitably, national pride often forms a barrier to the development of these relationships, but we and others have shown it to be not insurmountable. Thinking globally and acting locally will continue to be Axa's credo.

Due to a technical error on this page last week, our big mistake was transposing the pictures of Tony Elliott and columnist Tom Peters.

(Photograph omitted)

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