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Axa Goes Academic.

Managers gather at 'Axa University' in Virginia to learn the ropes of a rapidly expanding company and get the flavor of Axa's global reach.

As the warm afternoon drifted into dusk, two teams squared off in a rampaging game of soccer on a grassy knoll in southern Virginia. Shouts of "Salut!", "Jawohl! Jawohi!" and "C'mon, mates!" rang out as the charging men worked up a healthy sweat.

Although they hailed from different European countries, they shared a common association: Their ultimate employer is Axa Group, the world's largest insurance company in terms of assets. Paris-based Axa had brought them to this place, a former plantation turned conference center, with the express purpose of inculcating the parent company's values--like loyalty, team spirit and commitment--to its nationally and culturally diverse group of managers, many of whom had only recently been working for companies that Axa had acquired.

While many corporations provide training programs for their executives, Axa's approach--born of the need to bring its management up to speed during a period of rapid expansion--appears to be unique. The company calls its training system, "Axa University." In addition to the newly opened Virginia site, which features a restored Greek-revival mansion flanked by a new, 88-room hotel, Axa operates other management courses at two chateaux it owns near Bordeaux, France. The insurer has been running these weeklong seminars packed with classes and business games since 1995 and estimates that more than 10,000 managers, including its top executives, have attended.

"These sessions have made our fast growth possible," said Francoise Colloc'h, director of human resources, communications and synergies at Axa Group. "They have been key to bringing people together."

In less than 20 years, Axa has grown from a small, mutual insurance company in northern France to a global financial-services powerhouse, thanks to former Chief Executive Claude Bebear's trademark technique of snapping up financially sound but down-on-their-luck companies, such as UAP in France, Equitable Life Assurance Society in the United States and Guardian Royal Exchange in the United Kingdom. This stream of mergers and acquisitions also has generated considerable growing pains, a fact that is directly addressed during the no-holds-barred management sessions.

Colloc'h is among the 300 Axa senior managers who have served as trainers for these sessions. "The trainers tell their own experiences, where they have made mistakes," she said. "It's when people start talking about what is wrong, that we can start building."

The vision of building their own companies within the Axa framework was definitely on the minds of the 49 managers from eight countries at a seminar in February at Berry Hill, the rural Virginia center. They were there to trade ideas with colleagues from sister companies and to fine-tune special projects to improve technology or marketing, which they hoped to introduce back home. They also used the sessions to discuss the angst that Axa's acquisition spree sometimes stirs and to air their concerns about the retirement of Bebear, the man who built the company. He stepped down last month, succeeded by his lieutenant, Henri de Castries.

Not surprisingly, the topic of coping with change tends to dominate these classes.

During that February session, for example, trainer Daniel Trouve, a former manager with UAP and now with Axa's Information Systems division, was leading a class of 10 Germans, two Australians, five British, seven French, a Belgian and a New Zealander. Customarily, each of the university's classrooms has two translators who can provide simultaneous translations into English, French and German.

The ice-breaker this Friday morning was a playful exercise that pitted the managers against the trainer, who was playing the role of Bebear. The scenario was simple: the manager just happens to share an elevator with the CEO and has only one minute as they ascend to convince Bebear that his or her project is worthy of the big boss's attention.

The main idea is to get these managers to distill their thoughts into a simple, straightforward presentation.

The first volunteer, a long-winded Belgian, got waved away with a mock scowl by the mythical Bebear. Next came a German, who explained that he is working on a customer loyalty program 'because, during the recent merger, quite a few customers were leaving us. We want to prevent this." But he wasn't clear enough on his plan of action, and the trainer waved him off, too.

Finally, an Australian woman made her pitch: "We're presenting a leadership development program in our efforts to make sure that we have a large number of people able to move into leadership positions within the company in Australia and New Zealand," she said. "We'd like to invite you to be a guest speaker." This time "Bebear" smiled and agreed to attend.

Passing on a message in a short time isn't easy, Trouve acknowledged. "We have a wealth of information within the group," he said. "We should know how to use it. We can create a network of information. Take advantage of your presence here to make contacts for the future."

Next on the agenda was a discussion on the traditional stages of change, from the calm before the storm, to the plunge into the depths of turmoil and resistance, then the steady rise toward eventual transformation.

"Imagine you are a navigator, getting out of the storm," Trouve tells them. "Your role is to maintain your direction within the group's strategy." The boating image surfaces often at these seminars. This is one of the company's 28 "Axagrams," the visual alphabet that Axa designed as a universal language for its multilingual employees.

"You have to think now that change will be a permanent fixture. You will have very few stable periods, and the changes, which seemed more separated before, will be linked closer together," he said. "Your role is to accompany your team throughout the change period. Your role really is to hold your staff's hands."

Trouve asks the group to think about where their companies are on the change curve.

"We've lost people," said Erick Decker of Axa France Assurance. "How do you find the right measure between going fast enough and too fast?"

"The integration of Guardian and Axa has been very painful," one British manager said. "The organization was very typically U.K. This has been a very hard process."

A manager from Axa Colonia Group, Cologne, Germany, said his company's takeover in May 1999 of property/casualty insurer Albingia Versicherungs-AG Hamburg has been fraught with frustrations. "Many people coming from Albingia don't know what products await them in the future or what the orientation will be," he said. "There's the belief that many staff at higher levels will lose their jobs or have to take lower-level jobs. And we're still in negotiations with the unions, so we don't really have a fruitful or intense communication there. I think the climate will deteriorate, and we will have more fears, more anxiety."

A Belgian who is going through Axa's takeover of his former company, Royale Belge, lamented the loss of its recognizable brand. "Our merger was carried out 1 1/2 years ago," he explained. "Royale Belge was an old-fashioned company. Axa is a little too forward-looking. But Royale Belge was an institution. If you ask people about Royale Belge, everyone answers 'insurance.' But if you ask about Axa, many don't know what it is."

A battle-scarred veteran of the Axa-UAP merger in 1996 discussed some of the initial problems. At the time, UAP had 60,000 employees and Axa, 50,000.

"We had to merge information technology systems," the Frenchman said. "The two cultures were quite different, actually, but I think we're now heading up the curve in this area.

"However, the staff doesn't change its mind-set easily. They don't adapt as fast, they don't see why they should. But our other name has been canceled out. We're Axa now, and it's still a very strong corporate culture."

John Lyons, senior operations manager, Axa Insurance U.K., observed that companies can make it through the most tumultuous changes if they have good leadership. In recent years, his professional life has seen nothing but change: He started with the small U.K. company, Provincial Insurance, which was family owned. Then Provincial was sold to publicly owned UAP which was later acquired by Axa.

"To me, all my other companies were simply an emblem on my business card," Lyons said. "But Axa is different. Bebear has come to Britain and shared his vision with us. Yes, we had to be bought by somebody, but Axa made us feel a part of its organization. Leadership from the very top has a very powerful role to play in supporting change."

Bebear has made a point of regularly visiting each of Axa's companies in 60 countries. Last year alone, he made 68 such forays to meet with managers, discuss Axa 's vision and its values, and to stress that he expected each manager to achieve the corporate goals.

But the Belgian, whose newly acquired company also received a visit from Bebear, expressed concern about Axa's future now that Bebear has stepped down. "Will the new leader be as powerful?" he asked. "Can somebody tell me?"

"On the management board, there'll be no changes" the former UAP manager assured him. "Bebear made Axa, and he will be irreplaceable, but he will still be the main shareholder. A mother cannot abandon her baby."

For the next hour, the seminar's schedule called for participants to break up into small groups to further discuss their projects. The managers moved to the plantation grounds for brainstorming sessions at an outdoor amphitheater, then inside the former slaves' quarters--a series of small rooms that now house tables, chairs and computers. In one group, Alistair Wickens, a manager at PPP Healthcare health support division, Axa U.K., volunteered to report the group's results. He created a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, downloading information from the Internet, then he transmitted the program back to the center for use when the class resumed.

Lucky for Wickens, he was able to present his findings without being interrupted by one of Axa's business games. These home-grown exercises are designed to drive home the point that managers must react swiftly to change. For example, the managers might be told they are running a travel agency and need to create a business plan. Then, during the breakout session that follows, the trainers suddenly announce that an airline strike has been declared, with a press conference to follow.

"They give you X, Y and Z, and 20 minutes later, they throw in A and B," said David Clark, senior project manager at Axa Australia. "The games can be very frustrating. But they exaggerate to make a point. And when we put up language barriers as an excuse for not finishing on time, they say that's no excuse."

At the end of the weeklong sessions, participants fill out surveys that are sent to Axa headquarters. Bebear was in the habit of poring over these to gauge the reactions, Colloc'h said.

Dermot Devlin, marketing manager of Axa Ireland, thinks the seminars put the managers--no matter what the size of their home companies--on an equal footing. His small company was with the Guardian group until it was acquired by Axa last year.

"I'm building up contacts, relationships and learning skills," Devlin said over dinner at Berry Hill in February. "With constant e-mails and phone calls at home, we don't get a chance to step back. Here, we gain a new perspective: Are we doing things right? Could we be doing them better? It's structured to question what we're doing. People speak about mistakes they've made in business. Confiding is good for the soul in a risk-free environment."

One of the most common reactions is the realization of just how big Axa is.

"I visually realized that I now work for a multinational corporation," said Lyons, recalling his first Axa course in France and the colleagues he met from many different countries.

The sessions try to help participants become more aware of different management styles and approaches--including their own traits and behaviors--that can serve to make them more efficient on the job, Axa officials say.

"From a personal management point of view, I have to address some weaknesses," Devlin admitted. "I need a better understanding of group dynamics and how to plan business."

Moreover, the courses have eased Axa's shift from a product-driven to a more service-oriented business, Colloc'h said. "In just five years' time, we are talking much more about the client," she said.

Colloc'h predicts that 20 years from now, Axa's biggest market will be Asia, specifically China. The company already operates Axa China Region Ltd. out of Hong Kong. And in November, Axa acquired a controlling interest in Japanese life insurer, Nippon Dantai.

"Probably, we'll open up another university in Asia," Colloch said.

Time Out

At Axa University's American campus, company managers get far away from the office for an intensive, five-day program of business games, simulated workplace situations and debriefing sessions.

They also get a smattering of Southern culture. One Thursday evening in February at the site in rural Virginia, it was barbecue night, a weekly event designed to introduce some down-home American cooking and music to these European visitors.

As White Oak, a local bluegrass band, played such foot-tapping classics as John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the Axa managers chowed down on ribs, shredded pork, hamburgers, corn on the cob and grits. Bottles of California wine graced each table. After dessert, a teen-aged clog dancer took to the floor, joined by a handful of exuberant Axa managers who formed a bobbing chorus line.

This is as close to cabaret entertainment that these participants get at the Virginia site. That's because Axa wants its managers to concentrate on absorbing the parent company's principles and values. Axa has deliberately selected the isolated environment 150 miles south of Charlottesville, Va., to help them stay focused. To that end, there are no televisions or mini-bars in the complex's 88 hotel rooms. And there's not much in the nearby town of South Boston that might lure cosmopolitan insurance executives, either? This is tobacco-growing country where the big attraction is NASCAR racing.

"We felt we had to find a very different place, a different atmosphere," said Francoise Colloc'h, director of human resources, communications and synergies at Axa Group. "We were looking for something American."

So in their spare time, the Axa managers either pore over their laptops, sending and receiving messages from their home offices, or work out. The complex has a new, enclosed swimming pool with an exercise room and sauna next door. Trail bikes are lined up outside for touring the plantation's rolling acres. Some people walk or jog. And then there's always the daily game of pick-up soccer.

Axa Group

Milestones: What is now Axa began in 1817 as a small mutual company, located in northern France, that offered fire insurance. In 1975, Claude Bebear was named chairman. In 1982, the company, then called Mutuelle Unies, took control of French insurer Group Drouot, the first move in what was to become a stream of major acquisitions. In 1985, the corporate name was changed to Axa, a word that can be pronounced similarly in major European languages. All group member companies are scheduled to be trading under the Axa name by the end of this year.

Chief Executive: Henri de Castries, who succeeded founder Bebear in May.

Headquarters: Paris

Operations: In insurance: life, property/casualty and reinsurance, with activities primarily in Western Europe, North America and the Asia/Pacific region and, to a lesser extent, in Africa and South America; also, asset management, investment banking, securities trading, brokerage, real estate and other financial-services activities principally in the United States, as well as in Europe and the Asia/Pacific region. In the United States, Axa has a 60% holding in Axa Financial and its subsidiaries. Axa Advisors, Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U.S., Alliance Capital Management and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

Work Force: 140,000 in more than 60 countries.

Revenues: 68 billion euros ($61 billion) in 1999. Of this, life insurance accounted for 55%; property/casualty, 21%; reinsurance, large risks and assistance, 5%; asset management, 3%; and other financial services, 16%.

Consolidated Net Income: 2.02 billion euros ($1.82 billion), after taxes and minority interests, in 1999.

Assets Under Management: 781 billion euros ($704 billion), as of Dec. 31, 1999.

Axagrams

These are Axagrams, the pictograms developed by Axa Group to express ideas graphically. The international financial-services giant designed the Axagrams to work like a universal language, thereby helping its managers get around linguistic barriers to understand Axa's values and objectives. Here's how Axa describes these symbols:

The manager is the pilot and the passengers, Axa's clients. Working within the framework of corporate guidelines, managers are responsible for the means, actions and performance of their teams.

A compass symbolizes "the right direction." Employees are more motivated and effective when they understand the group's strategy and values, communicated by managers.

The right mix. To reach an objective, you must: do the right things; do them right; take the resources/result ratio into account

Courage. For the manager, courage means making decisions and accepting the consequences, both positive and negative. This is the key quality in a manager. (In Chinese, this ideogram means "go, do.")

Change is constant. It often has negative effects on behavior and productivity in the short term. The manager has to minimize the immediate negative effects and optimize the subsequent positive ones.

To go forward, the skipper must ride with the wind or otherwise, face problems. Managers aid change by creating enthusiasm for it among team members. They do this by demonstrating the positive results.

Feedback. Managers provide the impetus and communicate corporate policy. They receive feedback. This process helps the company reap the benefits of change.

Managers set the example. By demonstrating their skills and determination, they lead the way to improvement and growth for their employees.

Leadership Training

Axa Group is not the only major financial-services company to recognize the need to put its global mix of managers on the same corporate page.

GE Financial Assurance, the consumer insurance and investment arm of GE Capital, Stamford, Conn., operates its own "GEFA" university near its headquarters in Richmond, Va. More than 20,000 employees from around the world have taken courses at the university since it opened four years ago, said Mike Kachel, a spokesman for GE Financial.

"We offer far more than just a classroom environment," he said. "We have online learning capabilities, too." This means that employees who are off campus can take courses during their lunch hours via their office computers.

The courses run from one day to one week and range from the basic, like new employee orientation, to the meatier "Know Your Business" program, which instructs employees on the company's distribution channels and its multiple products from life insurance to mutual funds. "They learn about the whole company," Kachel said.

In shaping its educational programs, GE Financial has the advantage of learning from its two parent companies, GE Capital and General Electric Co., the diversified services, technology and manufacturing conglomerate.

"We can call on their years of experience and expertise and customize it to our special needs of insurance and investment," Kachel said.

GEFA's training courses are based on GE's Best Practices approach, which involves learning about and sharing the successful programs and practices of other people, groups and companies. GE's global education program is centered at its 52-acre Crotonville campus in New York's Hudson Valley.

Crotonville's Core Leadership Development Program, for example, is designed to intervene at crucial stages of manager development. The program brings together leaders from all of the diverse GE businesses around the world. One component, the Executive Development Sequence, is offered to senior professionals and executives who show potential for assuming key roles in GE's businesses.

While Crotonville plays a central role in spreading GE's values to more than 10,000 people annually, most education and training is carried out at each GE business unit, such as GE Financial, and these units tailor the programs to their business needs, the company said.
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Author:Bowers, Barbara
Publication:Best's Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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