Interview: Brendan McCafferty, Axa

Brendan McCafferty

Brendan McCafferty joined Axa as CEO, intermediated and direct, in February. He talks to Will Kirkman about his new role

Brendan McCafferty is not averse to a challenge. In the coming months, to mark his 50th birthday, he will walk a 250km pilgrimage from the south of France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Professionally, he was the driving force behind the launch of Flood Re, one of the biggest changes to the industry in the last decade. Despite the additional challenges that go with a new role as CEO of intermediated and direct at Axa, he describes the company as feeling “like home”.

“It’s just an absolute buzz,” he says. “This is an exceptional business. What Amanda [Blanc, UK group CEO] and the team have done is just amazing. So what I’m here for is to build on that, and it’s a fantastic thing to have the opportunity to do so.”

McCafferty was appointed to his new role in October and started in February, assuming the duties left following Blanc’s promotion to group CEO. He left his role as CEO of Flood Re, a project he maintains was a career highlight.

“I was approached and my initial reaction was: ‘No, I’m too deeply engaged in Flood Re to consider moving’,” he says. “But I did go away and think about it. And actually the timing felt good for lots of different reasons.”

Leaving a project he was so instrumental in bringing to life just seven months after launch was not a decision McCafferty took lightly. He says that he felt the opportunity to join Axa was too good to miss.

“I probably spent 30 years accumulating experience and getting myself to a point where I could see myself doing a job like this,” he says. “To not take the opportunity would just go against everything that I’d invested in doing over all those years.

“So it became something I just felt I had to do. To have the opportunity to shape a business, to build on what Amanda has done, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And not an opportunity that I necessarily thought I’d ever get. So it was too good to sit back and say: ‘No, I’m good, thanks’.”

 

Proud of Flood Re

Flood Re, which recently marked its first anniversary, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of homeowners in flood-prone areas being able to find affordable insurance. It is obvious that McCafferty still holds the project close to his heart.

“I will forever be proud of the role I played and the fantastic team that developed and delivered Flood Re,” he says. “It will always be a career highlight. I remain as passionate now as I ever was about Flood Re and its role and its purpose. It is something I will hold dear for a very long time.”

McCafferty explains that although he will work closely with the scheme through his position at Axa, he has not remained involved in any form of advisory role at Flood Re.

He says: “It worked out at the right time and I will pay attention to what happens to Flood Re from my new role, but what I’ve left behind is an organisation that is properly self-sufficient. It’s in very capable hands and the last thing it needs is me interfering in the background.”

McCafferty’s duties were previously assumed by Blanc before her promotion to group CEO in May last year. He says that her presence at Axa was instrumental in his decision to leave Flood Re and join the insurer.

“I’ve known Amanda for a number of years. I’ve worked with her on the other side of the table when I was at Willis, and she played an absolutely, fundamentally important role in the launch of Flood Re.

“I’d watched the development of Axa over the years with great curiosity and increasing admiration. I remember saying to someone a week in: ‘I feel at home’. I feel that’s partly due to the fact that I’ve got such a great boss.

“I’m very fussy now about who I work for. I’ve worked for some brilliant people and I’ve had some poor experiences as well. So it was an absolutely essential ingredient for me that Amanda was here.

“I can’t tell you how important the culture and character of an organisation is to me. It should be expressed to your people. And you should encourage them to bring all of themselves to the office every day, not to leave their values or their personalities at home.

“Bring it with you. If you can align the purpose of the organisation with the natural instincts of the people in your business, you will get better results for your customers and clients, I have no doubt about that.”

 

Settling in

It’s obvious that McCafferty has taken no time settling in. He explains that he had already identified the areas he sees as Axa’s strongest assets, and what needs to improve going forward.

“My focus is on a number of things,” he says. “There’s a load of focus in the commercial market for us around schemes, you’ll hear us talking about schemes soon and we’ll concentrate on that at the 2017 conference of the British Insurance Brokers’ Association.

“There’s our push into the middle market; there’s a great opportunity for Axa to consolidate the earlier work done in that area.

“We also want to write a lot more property business. We’re really good at it and we haven’t made as much of that opportunity as we should do, particularly in the regions.

“Then there’s a second agenda around innovation, and keeping the business where we are, which is right at the leading edge of innovation,” he says.

“There’s a long list of things we’re doing that are genuinely innovative and that move us from being an organisation that pays a claim to one that is proactive around risk.”

Axa launched its on-demand insurance app with insurtech firm Trov in November. Blanc said at the time that partnering with new entrants, rather than seeing them as a threat, was in Axa’s view the solution to handling disrupters in the market.

In March, the group revealed that it had partnered with legal firm Rradar to launch ‘Grace’, a machine learning-driven app powered by IBM Watson that uses a virtual assistant to deliver legal advice.

“I love the fact that we are genuinely innovative, and Axa is a group that gets this stuff,” says McCafferty.

“It’s not just words, it’s backed up with action. We’ve got to be at the forefront of that change. It’s happening anyway, and we need to lead it, not follow it.”

When McCafferty’s appointment was announced, Post asked brokers for their initial reactions. They welcomed the appointment, encouraged by McCafferty’s years of experience at Willis. It’s his varied career that McCafferty points to as one of his main strengths.

“I bring a strange and unusual blend of experience, which is basically why I was hired,” he says. “Because I’ve got underwriting experience. But then of course I’ve spent about seven years in broking, and that experience has been absolutely fundamental to the person I am now.

“I understand the broker mindset, I get what it takes to be successful in the broker market and the personal intermediated market. So I hope that’s going to help me have better conversations with brokers.

“That will be about helping them, but also it’s going to be about saying to them: ‘Actually, we need to see you do certain things’.

“Not all brokers are the same and we want to work with brokers that are interested and curious about what’s on the minds and agendas of their customers, and are prepared to collaborate and co-create with us to develop better solutions and propositions for those customers.

“That’s what we’re about. And that experience that I’ve accumulated over those years in my career puts me in a position to have those conversations.”

Time with brokers

McCafferty says that one of his first priorities is spending time with brokers and corporate partners, which he claims has been vital for his understanding of how Axa is perceived.

“It’s great fun,” he says. “I love the commercial market and the broker market, and it’s vitally important to us, so I’ve gone out of my way to do more than my fair share.”

It is clear that McCafferty is approaching his new role with all the enthusiasm and energy he sees personified in the company itself. But with his “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” now taken, what does McCafferty see the future holding?

“Increasingly I find I’ve got the conviction that the future will be about a small number of insurers doing exceptionally well,” he says.

“What’s the criteria for that doing that? Scale and reach. That’s at the heart of it, and Axa’s got that. There are players in the UK that are significant, but it’s important to remember that Axa is the second or third largest insurer in Europe. It is a powerhouse of capability. That will be the reason Axa succeeds.

“The evidence of that is the fact we’re doing so many different things at the same time. If we keep our focus, we will be incredibly successful.

“What I’d say to brokers is: ‘If you feel you are fed up with the uncertainty of commitment from other insurers, look at Axa. We’re capable of doing great things and we will stay the course’.

“One broker put it to me quite nicely recently. He said: ‘A few years ago, we would have got along fine without thinking of Axa. Now we can’t ignore it. We know we have to pay attention to Axa or we will lose out’. And that’s where we are.

“It’s no surprise to me, it’s where we deserve to be, and that’s what I’m going to build on. Axa is a great business with a great future, and I’m just thrilled to be here, and to be part of it.”

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