After long-time AXA Chief Executive Officer Henri de Castries resigned in September of 2016, the company’s board knew they had some big shoes to fill.

De Castries moved to private equity firm General Atlantic, where he will be advising the company on European investment opportunities in his role as Chairman of Europe and Special Advisor.

“With a distinguished career leading one of Europe’s most important financial institutions, Henri’s wealth of experience as a global business leader will be an important and valuable addition,” said General Atlantic CEO Bill E. Ford in a recent press release.

For its part, AXA had put a strong transition team in place, including Thomas Buberl, who became the company’s CEO after de Castries’ departure.

“It’s very intimidating,” Buberl admitted when thinking of de Castries’ legacy. “But in the process of the handover he’s given me many pieces of advice. One piece was, ‘Be yourself and be authentic, don’t try to copy anybody else.’ I’ve followed this advice every day.”

Intimidated or not, Buberl and AXA got off to a pretty good start. In Q1 2017, revenues surpassed €100 billion (just over $117 billion) for the first time, and net profits rose almost 4 percent to €5.8 billion ($6.8 billion).

Buberl laid out his Ambition 2020 strategy, a five-year plan he launched in 2016 with a goal to boost AXA’s earnings per share growth to 7 percent a year—a growth of three percentage points.

In Q2, the company’s half-year earnings per share growth was 5 percent, with an adjusted earnings per share of 4 percent.

“This is being carried by a strong improvement in all lines of business,” Buberl said in a call to investors, adding that the company’s property & casualty business had improved by 6 percent in the first half of the year, and its asset management improved by 10 percent.

“We are, from what I’ve seen, extremely well-positioned looking at the competition, but also extremely well-positioned when I look at the track record of continuously reducing debt,” Buberl told the investors.

As part of the Ambition 2020 plan, Buberl is cutting costs and targeting higher-margin products, as well as making the company “more customer-friendly.”

Although AXA employees have been shaken by Buberl’s talk of cost cutting, he says they need not fear. “We have reserved a large budget to retrain our staff and to really make our staff successful in the transformation,” he told the Telegraph. For example, contact center employees will need to transition from taking calls to picking up new digital skills like communicating with customers through Facebook messenger.

He is also steering the insurance giant through the turbulence of preparing for Brexit, no small task given the long-term political and business negotiations involved.

Despite Brexit, Europe is still a good place to do business. According to General Atlantic’s Ford, “There’s an entrepreneurial renaissance in Europe that is really exciting.”

Both Buberl and de Castries are set to be major players in guiding their companies through that renaissance and through the Brexit process.

Photo: AXA offices in Milan, Italy. Credit: Sergio Monti Photography /