Axa director of national sales Alison Burns has just had a week off work through sickness and anyone who know Burns will realise why this is significant. She has not had a spell of sick leave for at least 10 years.Burns recently returned from a trip to Paris with Axa with a cold she blames on “European integration”. Axa was looking at its global strategies and how financial services are operating abroad and Burns participated in one Euro party too many, only to come back with a cold. There is a sense that she is restless away from the office. Burns is responsible for Axa life and pension sales and distribution through IFAs and the services and needs of advisers. She joined Axa last year and has risen through the ranks quickly from national sales manager in January to head of IFA sales in July and director of national sales in November. Burns says: “IFAs are concerned with staying in business, surviving and, of course, making money. They are not only worried about helping individual clients but making sure they are protecting themselves.” She believes Axa is well placed to deal with the demands of depolarisation due to its current relationships with the IFA community and authorised representatives. She believes advisers are looking at three options. First, there are IFAs which believe independence is the cornerstone of their proposition for their clients. Second, there are advisers which are happy to enter into multi-ties and, third, there are advisers interested in a hybrid – to remain an IFA but to improve efficiency and sustainability of their business models by entering into a multior single-tie environment for, say, mortgages and protection. Axa is more than willing to accommodate any of these three options. Burns says IFAs seem to have a very high level of understanding of the choices open to them. She says: “Personally, I think the level of understanding about the options out there has been good and people are looking carefully at their business models.” But she says some product providers perhaps do not share the same level of understanding. She says: “On pension simplification, not all legislation has been confirmed yet and I can understand if a big provider does not know how to develop or market products. It helps if you have the rules of engagement.” But Burns says she applauds the ultimate aim of pension simplification and is a big supporter of making simple information accessible to consumers. She says if she was Chancellor for the day, access to simple financial information would be key to her Budget. “The biggest issue we face is incentivising savings, particularly for pensions, and providing incentives for employers to educate the workforce. Sooner or later, we have to take into account the fact that normal, average human beings will pay attention if they can understand what is being offered. We still have some distance to go yet.” Axa is sponsoring FE4, a Government organisation which aims to provide basic financial education for the workplace, and it is also backing finance education in primary schools. No stranger to the primary school environment, Burns has two young children and has written a school musical “with a good moral ending”. A grade eight pianist, one of her goals would be to write a musical or a score for a movie such as Out of Africa. But until the children go to university, she is content with spending the weekend with her family. Her role as a mother and successful businesswoman caught the eye of Women IFA Group founder Fiona Price and Burns was asked to speak at the recent Axa-sponsored Wig Woman IFA of the Year awards. Burns says women are by nature inquisitive which lends itself well to being an IFA. She says: “Women are genetically nosy and fantastic in terms of seeking to get to the core of what a client really wants to happen. It is fair to say why have a showcase for female IFAs and not for male IFAs but I think it is about time we took a chance to celebrate good talent, whether it is for males or females.” Finding the best IFAs and forging relationships is part of Burns’ master plan. Her priority is to increase the size of the workforce. In the short term, she will be appointing eight new account managers and by the end of the year, she wants to have appointed 19 managers. She says her aim is to continue to develop key skills and capabilities and, as a provider, continue to offer full support to IFAs. Burns has come a long way since her chemistry degree in 1986. She started off in marketing in the scientific sector but wanted to try something which would offer her more breadth. After a stint at Equitable Life as an adviser, Burns realised she had found her niche. She became a director of a consultancy firm but found the pace too slow. She says Axa gives her an environment in which her ambitions can thrive. She also describes it as a “meritocracy”. She says: “As an industry, we generally are not very good at celebrating and promoting each other. It is different at Axa.” Burns says she has a burning desire to educate IFAs and make sure they have the support they require as we approach A-Day and plunge into a depolarised world.
Born: September 1963
Lives: Bucks with husband and two children
Educated: University of Reading, chemistry. Graduated in 1986
Career: Various roles, including marketing and sales director at Perkin Elmer, adviser at Equitable Life, director of a consultancy firm. Joined Axa in 2004 as national sales manager. November 2004, becomes director of national sales.
Career ambition: To deliver sales, ideas and service. In the long term, to become sales director on the board.
Life ambition: 1: To see her children grow up happy and confident, self-assured in their skills. 2: To run off to France. 3: To write a musical. 4: Develop a successful business career.
Heroes: Her mother, Queen Elizabeth I for keeping her wits about her and making a commercial success of the UK, Heston Blumenthal (family friend and owner of three Michelin starred restaurant The Fat Duck) for being so passionate about doing great food.
Drives: Mercedes C class
Hobbies: Vegetable growing, learning French
Likes: Her husband
Dislikes: People who change sides