The last few years have afforded him little time to fall into familiar patterns. In this market, I have not been able to get bored because every single year something comes along to change it.”
The financial crisis, tumbling stockmarkets and the retail distribution review have all demanded Evans’ attention. Then there is the not insignificant matter of the acquisition of Winterthur, the remodelling of the Axa Life business in the UK, the design and launch of Axa’s new wrap Elevate and the launch of multi-manager Architas.
Evans’ first exposure to the life insurance business was as an auditor at Coopers Lybrand. By 2000, he was recruited by Axa as financial controller, rising quickly to finance director the following year and chief executive of Axa Life UK by 2003.
He says he has always found the life insurance business fascinating if not always the best managed. “It is a market steeped in historical practices and it is not desperately logical at times.”
But if life insurance has been resistant to change in the past, Evans says the industry had better get used to it. “The RDR is not going to go away, it is going to transform our industry. The perfect storm of the unthinkable happening to the banks, the financial markets collapsing, it is going to give rise to a new industry and I find that really exciting.”
The transformation process has been under way at Axa for some time now and key to that has been the acquisition of Winterthur Life. Evans says the integration of the two businesses has been an enormous success, bringing in not only Winterthur’s existing business, knowledge and expertise but also, perhaps most important, its culture.
“We seem to have managed to protect what was great about Winterthur while bringing in and adding the leverage of Axa’s scale to that business model.
“The service philosophy at Winterthur was something I admired from afar. I could easily have broken it by saying, This is how we do things at Axa. But we did the reverse and asked, How do you do things at Winterthur? How can I apply that to my business?”
The acquisition brought with it important knowledge and experience for a post-RDR market – how to operate with a fee-based model.
Speaking before the publication of the latest version of the RDR, Evans says he does not expect any dramatic developments for IFAs.
“I know the RDR has had its critics but I think increasingly there is a good strong consensus and everyone now feels there is some benefit to come from this.”
The one area where he does expect development is tied advice and this could determine whether this is a market Axa wants to be involved in.
With professionalism forcing a middle section of advisers up market, Evans says the question is what happens to the mass market and how they get advice.
“We have to find a way of making this new area work efficiently for everybody and that is where the bigger prize is in a way. We are going to learn whether that is a viable segment where we want to compete or whether it is a broken piece that still needs more work.”
Either way, Evans says the IFA market, which currently accounts for 90 per cent of Axa Life’s new business, will remain the bedrock of its UK life business. “Other channels will emerge but IFA is going to be a cornerstone of how we do business and always will be. Our investment in Bluefin is evidence of that. We are passionate believers in the future of advice.”
Surprisingly for the boss of one of the UK’s biggest insurers, Evans says the millions the industry has spent on trying to come up with unique and different products to attract consumers is a waste as consumers are not that interested. The result is generally a product that is difficult and inefficient to administer and not valued by the client.
In fact, he says, the whole concept of what a life company does can be overlooked by the client. He says it is clear that clients value advice and investment returns but overlook the tax wrapper in the middle.
In a break from the old model, Evans has divided the business into specific areas of expertise. Axa is still a traditional life insurer distributing protection products but, with Bluefin and Axa Winterthur Wealth Management, it now also has a significant presence in the advice sector. Most significantly, it is now a manufacturer and distributor of investment management with Architas and Elevate.
Across all these business areas, Evans says the way to stand out needs to be excellent quality of service. This is something where life companies in general have not had the best reputation but it is the target Evans has set himself.
“I want to get to a point where people prefer Axa because of the brilliant service it delivers to customers. Our reputation has been tarnished in the past but that is my personal priority to rebuild.”
Much is riding on Evans’ vision. Axa has ploughed around £300m of investment into Axa Life and expects impressive results in return.
But Evans seems pleased with Axa Life’s development so far. Elevate has already achieved its target for adviser sign-up for the whole year, the Bluefin business is where he wants it and the figures across the business are encouraging, with an annual increase of 12 per cent between 2005 and 2008.
By implementing change now, Evans says the business is ready for the future. “That is why we think we are RDR-ready, ready for the market that will emerge from the storm because we are not managing it as one big mass. I do not have to protect the life company of old, I am there to ask what the consumer wants and figure out what part of my business can deliver.”
Lives: Cheltenham with his wife and three sons
Education: Mathematics, Imperial College, London
Career: 2003 to present: CEO, Axa Life; 2000-2003: financial controller then group finance director, Axa Life; 1986-99, director, PriceWaterhouseCoopers
Drives: Porsche 911
Book: Tony Benn Diaries
Film: The Shawshank Redemption
Album: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
Career ambition: Already surpassed, so to take things as they come
Life ambition: To make a difference
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…A maths teacher