Brokers wait on Axa’s next move after Hardy’s shock departure

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Amanda Blanc takes over personal lines as well as commercial after Steve Hardy steps down as CEO of Axa Personal Lines

The sudden departure of Steve Hardy – a founding director of Swiftcover – from the CEO role of Axa Personal Lines has sparked concern among brokers as to what the insurer will do next. With Mr Hardy reportedly being placed on gardening leave for six months, speculation has also flowed as to the reasons behind his departure.

In the main, Mr Hardy, who joined Axa when Swiftcover was bought in 2007, had been seen as having a positive impact in the role. However, concerns in the market had surfaced that the process may be about to unravel.

p6-box-0712A review of the UK motor insurance market by accountancy firm Deloitte put Axa’s combined operating ratio (COR) for 2011 at over 120%, making it the poorest major player in a market averaging 106%.

Despite several requests from Insurance Age to garner more details about Mr Hardy’s exit, Axa refused to expand on its statement that he “intends to explore new opportunities”.

Impact on brokers

For brokers the debate swirls around how the latest upheaval will affect their personal line dealings with the insurance giant. Lisa McPherson, managing director of Fresh Insurance Services, admitted the changes were being monitored. “It would be a concern for us with him [Mr Hardy] stepping down – I hope there’s no impact,” she commented.

The present solution is for Ms Blanc, the current CEO of Axa Commercial Lines, to step in to fill the void on a temporary basis. There is no word on whether she would be offered and accept the role permanently, but that has not stopped the conjecture, even if it is only two years since commercial lines and personal lines were split into self-contained units by Axa, each with their own CEO, in October 2010.

While brokers could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déja vu, the main priority remains the hope, however the provider chooses to proceed, that the changes will not impact on key relationships. “We are growing an account with Axa and hope that this will continue and that the change will not influence how we deal with them,” commented Ms McPherson.

As it stands, the personal lines broker and corporate partnership business will now report to Ms Blanc. Certainly, over the past 18 months since joining from Towergate, Ms Blanc will have grown accustomed to change. Last year, she was at the forefront of a new regional policy designed to bring Axa’s commercial underwriters closer to brokers and she has also built her own management team. Some have noted that it would make sense to have a personal lines expert in the role should it continue. However, Ms Blanc certainly has her supporters in the market, with little fear that the job would take her away from focusing on commercial lines.

Fusion of roles

Chief executive of insurance at Jelf Phil Barton for one is confident that this new fusion of Ms Blanc’s roles could work well. “It makes a lot of sense – I think there will be some benefits as we have an excellent relationship with Axa Commercial and Amanda Blanc is a hugely influential figure,” he explained. “Structurally it could be a good thing from a broker perspective. I think it adds value, understanding and insight to the whole relationship.”

Whoever takes the job will not be short of challenges, as has been seen with Axa’s motor COR. The premium growth enjoyed by both insurers and brokers has now ground to a halt and there remains widespread recognition that competition is as stiff as ever. As Michael Lawrence, LV Broker personal lines director, described it: “I would say [the market] is in a rather confused state. It’s competitive at the moment – there are people who want to grow their business and build value in terms of potential sales.” He added: “It’s certainly softened in the first half of this year and the market can’t afford to cut its prices.”

Whoever takes up the role, in whatever form, will have plenty on their plate. Normally an insurer would run the risk of being criticised by brokers for constantly changing its mind if it returned to just one CEO having heralded its split in functions in the relatively recent past. But it appears that, should Axa go down that route, it might just get away with it this time.

“Amanda has a voracious appetite for achieving outstanding results and she has not met her match yet,” concluded Mr Barton. “She’s doing great things and I think she has the capability to make a difference in personal lines as well.”

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