Henri de Castries

Chief executive officer, AXA Group

Nationality: French.

Born: August 15, 1954, in Bayonne, France.

Education: HEC School of Management, 1976, undergraduate business degree; law degree; École Nationale d'Administration, graduate, 1980.

Family: Married; children: three.

Career: French Finance Ministry Inspection Office, 1980–1984, auditor; French Treasury, 1984–1989, deputy secretary of the Interministerial Committee on Industrial Restructuring; AXA, 1989–1991, trained in many areas of insurance and then joined the corporate finance division; 1991–1993, corporate secretary; 1993–1997, senior executive vice president; 1997–2001, chairman, AXA Financial (known as The Equitable Companies until September 1999); 2001–, chief executive officer.

Awards: Chevalier de Ordre National du Mérite, 1996.

Address: AXA, 25 avenue Matignon, Paris 75008 France; http://www.axa.com.

■ In 2001 Henri de Castries, groomed by his dynamic, wellknown predecessor Claude Bébéar for over a decade, became chief executive officer (CEO) of AXA, the world's biggest insurer by income and the third-largest investment manager. Clearly de Castries's challenge was to distinguish himself from his former boss as well as to lead his company at a time when the once predictable insurance business was facing challenges from both new technologies and new rivals.


De Castries, a descendant of Louis XVI's naval commander, was born in Bayonne in the Basque region of southwestern France to an old noble family whose men had served in the military for several generations. His maternal grandfather and his father played significant roles in World War II and in Algeria

Henri de Castries. AP/Wide World Photos.
Henri de Castries.
AP/Wide World Photos

and Korea, respectively. De Castries himself served as a paratrooper during his military service. After his preparatory studies at a lycée in Paris, de Castries earned both a business and a law degree. He then graduated at the top of his class at the École Nationale d'Administration, the prestigious school for senior civil servants in Paris whose alumni are known as énarques , a term derived from the acronym ENA.

De Castries launched his career in a traditional way at the Finance Ministry Inspection Office, where he audited various government agencies from 1980 to 1984. Then he became deputy secretary of the Interministerial Committee on Industrial Restructuring, overseeing companies that were struggling financially. In 1986 he played a role in privatizing several entities, including TF1, the French national television network. De Castries also supervised the balance of payments for the French Treasury, a notable achievement for a man only in his thirties.


In 1989, after nine years working for the French government and tiring of the bureaucracy, de Castries met the head of AXA, Claude Bébéar, who was searching for new talent to help him in his ambitious plans for the company. De Castries spent two years training in the field and then became part of AXA's corporate-finance division. With his appointment to the position of corporate secretary in 1991, he managed the legal issues involved in AXA's merger and reorganization with the Compagnie du Midi. Other promotions followed as de Castries assumed greater roles in the numerous acquisitions of the company. While he was the senior executive vice president from 1993 to 1997, his responsibilities began to extend outside France, and he played key roles in AXA's operations in Germany and central Europe.


In 1997 de Castries became chairman of AXA Financial (known as The Equitable Companies until 1999) and led the negotiations for AXA's acquisition of Guardian Royal Exchange. His participation in AXA's global operations increased, and he began to emerge from the inevitable comparisons with the charismatic Bébéar as an important leader in his own right. That year he also played a vital role in acquiring UAP, the second-largest French insurance company, which doubled the size of AXA.

De Castries received praise from many of his colleagues for his problem-solving skills and clear legalistic thinking. His management style was described as consensual, and in an article in Banker , Sylvain Hefes, an executive at Goldman Sachs, commented, "Things are achieved by consensus but he [de Castries] is not afraid of being questioned and in that way he is very different from the French establishment." Criticism of the French legal system also contributed to de Castries's reputation as outspoken.


In 2001 de Castries become CEO of AXA, and he was eager to put his own mark on the company. His tenure came at a challenging time for the insurance industry, however, and de Castries stated in an article in BusinessWeek that "In a field that has already been leveled by deregulations, we're seeing an entire industrial revolution in financial services."

Although he was quoted in the media as saying he would like to continue building the AXA empire, de Castries acknowledged that his first priority had to be growing the firm internally to make the revenues necessary for more acquisitions. Competition was fierce from companies offering online financial services and others that were gearing up to take advantage of deregulation and woo AXA's key clients in insurance and asset management. So de Castries had to count on his firm's sales force, its greatest asset, to sell high-margin products like mutual funds to AXA's present insurees.

De Castries maintained his stamina by horseback riding on his estate in Anjou in the Loire valley, playing tennis and golf, and hunting and shooting with his family and friends. He also did his share of charitable work as treasurer of AXA Atout Coeur, which encourages employee involvement in community service, and as a board member of the Association pour l'aide aux jeunes infirmes, an organization that helps youth who are disabled.

See also entry on AXA Group in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

"A Blue Blood Leading AXA into Battle," BusinessWeek , January 31, 2000, p. 25.

Capon, Andrew, "Noblesse Obliged," Institutional Investor , January 2001, p. 35.

Clow, Simon, and Charles Fleming, "AXA Chief Sees a Silver Lining," Wall Street Journal—Europe , September 17, 2002.

——, "AXA Chief Vows More Acquisitions as Sector Revives," Wall Street Journal—Europe , August 13, 2003.

"The Difficulty of Being Dauphin," Economist , September 4, 1999, p. 64.

Robinson, Katrina, "Talking Down the Disbelievers," Banker , May 1, 2003.

—Anne Lesser

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