Former chairman and chief executive officer, AXA Group
Born: July 29, 1935, in Issac, France.
Education: École Polytechnique, 1958.
Family: Married (wife's name unknown); children: five.
Career: Anciennes Mutuelles, 1958–1964; 1964–1966, founder of life-insurance branch of Provinces Unies; 1975–1978, chairman; Mutuelles Unis, 1978–1985, chairman; AXA Group, 1985–2000, chairman and CEO.
Awards: Commander of the Legion of Honor; Officer of the National Order of Merit; Manager of the Year, Nouvel Économiste , 1988.
Publications: Le courage de réforme, 2002; Ils vont tuer le capitalisme (with Philippe Manière), 2003.
Address: AXA Group, 25 avenue Matignon, Paris 75008 France; http://www.axa.com.
■ Claude Bébéar, who was called the "godfather of French capitalism," built the global insurance giant AXA Group by taking over obscure or struggling financial companies and making them hugely profitable. The company and the man were almost synonymous because Bébéar spent his whole career at the firm, and under his leadership it grew enormously in size and influence. At the end of 2003 AXA Group was the number-one insurer in the world, with 50 million clients in 50 countries and $979 billion in client assets under management.
Bébéar grew up in southwestern France in the Dordogne region. His parents were teachers and placed a high value on academic success. After attending local schools and preparing at the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris, Bébéar began his college education at the elite École Polytechnique, one of France's grandes écoles , which groom future business leaders and politicians.
André Sahut d'Izarn, the father of Bébéar's college roommate, headed Anciennes Mutuelles, a small, undistinguished insurance company in Rouen, Normandy. When d'Izarn failed to interest his own son in a position at the firm, he approached Bébéar with a similar offer. Although Bébéar believed his education had prepared him for a more glamorous future—perhaps in the French civil service—the opportunity to grow with a company and become a successful entrepreneur intrigued him; he began his career at Anciennes Mutuelles in 1958.
Bébéar worked his way up through the company's hierarchy, gaining both skills and responsibilities as he progressed. From 1964 to 1966 he worked in Canada, where he created the life-insurance division of Provinces Unies, a subsidiary of Anciennes Mutuelles. He gained firsthand experience working in the aggressive, freewheeling business environment he found there, a culture that contrasted sharply with his native France.
Bébéar's successful resolution of a workers' strike in 1974 impressed the board, and he became chairman of Anciennes Mutuelles after d'Izarn's death in 1975. In 1978 the firm, renamed Mutuelles Unies, acquired the practically bankrupt Mutuelle Parisienne de Garantie. Then in 1982, when the leftist government wanted to nationalize the insurance sector, Bébéar took on the Drouot Group, at the time the leading private insurance company in France, which became the first of his many conquests. As described in Fortune magazine, Bébéar's skill at taking over smaller rivals, or "his appetite in gobbling up companies," earned him the nickname of "Crocodile Claude" (December 20, 1999).
Under Bébéar's leadership the firm's name was changed to AXA Group in 1985; the choice was astute because, although the letters did not stand for anything, they would come at the beginning of alphabetical lists, and people worldwide could pronounce the name. Bébéar's skill at operating outside his country's borders was becoming apparent.
According to an article in Fortune , Bébéar "benefited from a charming, easygoing exterior that masked a steely determination" (December 20, 1999). His interest in hunting wild game generated many comparisons to his supposed stalking and capturing of weaker companies. Rugby, his favorite sport, was also used as a metaphor for his no-holds-barred approach. Bébéar became one of the first of a new breed of European CEOs who understood how essential it was for France to enter global markets.
By 1988 AXA was the second-largest French insurance company, just behind UAP. In what was described as a turning point in his career, Bébéar made a $1 billion investment in Equitable, the fifth-largest U.S. life insurer in 1991, and turned it into a unit of AXA. The move gave him international credibility and secured a place for AXA on the New York Stock Exchange the following year.
Bébéar eventually negotiated a merger with UAP, a company that represented the old way of doing business in France. UAP's falling stock prices had made it vulnerable to the American firm AIG, and Bébéar prevailed on sentiments of national pride to keep the business in France. AXA doubled in size and became a formidable presence in all of Europe.
Still further acquisitions meant entry into the world markets in Asia, Australia, and elsewhere. Bébéar traveled extensively and became known for his adventurous meetings with his executive teams, engaging in such activities as camping near the Great Wall of China and exploring the Nigerian desert.
In a speech in Berlin at the 35th Annual Seminar of the International Insurance Society in 1999, Bébéar said insurers needed to make changes in order to remain competitive. He cited research by Andersen Consulting that found that insurance agents were in touch with their clients on average only every eight years, in contrast to banks, which had contact with clients every three weeks. As people were buying insurance via telephone-based services, supermarkets, and even mail order, Bébéar emphasized effective branding and the importance of keeping agents close to their customers. He added that consumers of certain types of insurance and other financial products would continue to require personal contact with professional, highly trained advisers.
Although he officially retired as AXA's director when he turned 65 in 2000, Bébéar remained active as the chairman of AXA's supervisory board. In its August 11, 2003, issue, Fortune included Bébéar on its list of the 12 most powerful business leaders outside the United States.
In 2001 Bébéar headed the committee to locate the 2008 Olympics in Paris. He also helped found the Institut Montaigne, a think tank that analyzed French economic challenges. Bébéar resisted overtures to become involved in his country's volatile political scene, twice turning down offers to become finance minister, although he did not rule out future involvement.
His book Ils vont tuer le capitalisme (They Are Going to Kill Capitalism), published in 2003 and coauthored with the French economist Philippe Manière, discussed globalization and its effects on the French economy. Bébéar deplored the corporate scandals that sapped the confidence of both investors and employees, without whose participation capitalism would be impossible. He explained that the need for highly paid specialists in international law and finance hamstrung business leaders and complicated their decision making. Bébéar called for a return to more vigorous audits and closer scrutiny of company finances.
See also entry on AXA Colonia Konzern AG in International Directory of Company Histories .
de Hasay, Anthony, "Capitalism and Virtue: Politicians Do Not Understand the Economy, but Do Managers?" The Library of Economics and Liberty , June 2, 2003, http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2003/JasayVirtue.html .
Howard, Lisa S., "AXA Cites Threats from New Insurance Players," National Underwriter Property & Casualty-Risk & Benefits Management , August 2, 1999, p. 15.
Rossant, John, and Carol Matlack, "A Talk with the Godfather: Claude Bébéar on What French Business Needs Now," BusinessWeek , July 29, 2002, p. 58.
Tagliabue, John, "French Business Champion, or a Corporate Puppeteer?" International Herald Tribune , November 15, 2003.
Tully, Shawn, "Watch Out! Here Comes Crocodile Claude: AXA's Claude Bébéar Became the World's Largest Insurer by Hunting Down Dogs like Equitable and Making Them Winners," Fortune , December 20, 1999, p. 206.