Henri de Castries (H.76)
The Man with Vision

Paris. We were quite excited to meet Henri in the luxurious offices of AXA in the 8th district of Paris. Perfectly on time, he took us around, showed us his office, the room where the Executive Board takes places. After that, we had a fascinating 45 minutes interview, where he talked to us about AXA and his role as a CEO.

Read full transcript…


Let’s start with a little Chinese Portrait: we are going to ask you short questions and you will have to answer with just one word and justify it if you want.

Are you ready? Ok so if you were… a colour?

HDC: Blue, because it’s the colour of the sea and the colour of the sky.

H: An animal?

HDC: African buffalo.

H: A meal? 

HDC: Ah! A meal from the Club des Cents, which is a club I am belonging to. Every meal of the Club des Cents is a great one. (laughs)

H: A song?

HDC: (hesitates…) A religious one, Trouver dans ma vie ta présence.

H: A movie?

HDC: My preferred movie is The Duellists, from Ridley Scott. It’s the story of two officers during the Revolutionary and then Napoleonic wars. Phenomenal story.

H: A sin?

HDC: All of them. (smiles)

H: An object?

HDC: A Swiss-knife, because it can be used for many purposes.

H: A sport or a game?

HDC: Hunting and rugby, for obvious reasons! (laughs)

H: A book?

HDC: Two different answers. One of them is the diary of the Général Marbot, who was one of the youngest officers in the Napoleonic wars. He took part in the very first Revolutionary wars and ended up as a colonel in Waterloo.

The other one that I liked very much is an economic book, Wealth and Poverty of the Nations, written 20 years ago by David Landes, a British economist.

H: A (super)hero? It can be Superman or a real person.

HDC: Maybe one of the founding fathers of the American Revolution, because it is an interesting story.

“As business people, I think we have to say what we think about the way the country is managed. After all we are huge tax payers, and it’s not illegitimate to have a judgement on the way the money we pay is used.”

H: Now, can you try to sum up your professional story in just 30 seconds?

HDC: Ok, short and simple. I spent a little less than 10 years as a civil servant at the Finance Ministry, doing in particular the privatization of state-owned companies. And then I’ve been for 26 years at AXA, developing the group. We have built the teams over the years and made AXA the first insurance brand worldwide.

H: Let’s talk about this “success story” a bit more. How did you manage to make AXA the world’s first insurer?

HDC: First, I had the privilege of working initially with the founder of the group, Claude Bébéar, who had a very clear vision about the way you could become international in such a business. Second, what I have tried to do over the years is pretty simple: combining the ability to develop a vision of the world and the way your business can change over the years, with the progressive build up of teams. With great people, you can delegate to, rely on and deal with. So vision + team spirit, I think this is what has worked, with the ability to understand that even if your are successful, not everything is right, and you need to try to improve every morning.

Axa Offices, Paris 8th district

Axa Offices, Paris 8th district

H: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?

HDC: The fact that I work with great people in a great business that is doing good things for the clients and for the society in general. (We look at him, a bit dubious…) It’s important!

H: What’s the typical Henri de Castries working day?

HDC: Not one like this one, because half of my time I am out of this office, travelling abroad to visit the teams, the clients and the local authorities. When I am here, it’s basically between meetings with the teams and time I try to set up for myself to think about what are the long-term priorities of the group, what are the key things we need to do. Are we really working according to our priorities, are we wasting our time on things which are not real priorities?

And it’s not only an individual process! As a team, you need to have your own sort of process. So every Monday, we have a meeting of our management committee, 8 people, and we sit together for between 2 and 6 hours and we discuss all the business of the group in a very open way. Because there is mutual trust.

At the end of the day you are the boss, you are the one making the ultimate decision, but you need to rely on the advice of your teams.

“Your generation will have to be re-skilled, probably every 5 years, if you want to be employable and if you want to be successful in life.”

H: Do you manage to have time for yourself?

HDC: Yes I try to have time for myself, of course. If you don’t have a proper work/life balance you can’t survive in these jobs. I’ve been now the CEO of AXA for 17 years, you can’t survive if you can’t manage a balance.

H: Claude Bébéar (AXA’s founder and former CEO), told in previous interviews that he chose you to succeed him because of the qualities you have. What are these qualities in your opinion?

HDC: Ask him! (laughs) No joke, what we were looking at the time was the ability to keep going on and developing the group internationally so you needed, I guess, to have someone who was open to different cultures but was also able to have a clear vision and a very firm hand.

H: Does you position, CEO of a CAC40 company, give you a specific role to play in France?

HDC: Companies are living bodies so the first mission of the CEO is to make it successful and I am proud, we are proud, as a group, to have become a real, true, global success. For the 7th consecutive year we are the first insurance brand worldwide and it’s a brand that didn’t exist 25 years ago so this is a success we are proud of.

As insurers, we also have a role to play in society because we are touching a lot of delicate issues, in France but elsewhere. Look at what goes on with climate change, longevity, health… We have a huge amount of accumulated knowledge, within the company, and sharing it with external audiences is part of what I call our “social mission”.

And, as business people, I think we have to say what we think about the way the country is managed. After all we are huge tax payers, and it’s not illegitimate to have a judgement on the way the money we pay is used.

H: Do you have a specific role to play outside of France?

HDC: It’s like HEC: I think we are seen as a global success with French roots. Today, 85% of the clients of the group and 80% of its shareholders are not French. We are developing our business nearly everywhere but the control center of the group is still geographically located here in Paris, even if it’s not populated only with French.castries

So we are seen as a global institution and I think that, with our very respectable competitors, we are a voice in some very significant debates. The debate on climate change, where we have taken very clear positions. The debate on big data and data privacy, because data is the blood and DNA of insurers and we need to have a view on this subject. The debate of longevity is also a very important one: what can science do and what science should not do. All these are very important questions and I think we can and we should, as a voice among many others, give a view.

H: Talking about public debates, you recently took the head of the Institut Montaigne and decided to make two reports, one on the digital transformation of the world and the other one on education. Why are those two topics important to you?

HDC: Because they are the keys of the new century!

A century ago, new things were starting: oil and electricity were starting to penetrate the manufacturing sector, and the film industry started to develop approximately at the same time. All this totally transformed the world in terms of communication and industrialization.

We are seeing the same thing happening today and both the digital revolution and the way the education system are going to be transformed are absolutely key for the next generations, so better try to have a view in these fields!

Institut-MontaigneWe still live under a half-outdated model, because people have the feeling that what they learn between age 5 and age 25 is going to be of use for them for the next 60 years, which will be the length of their professional life. The reality is that with the amount of knowledge doubling every two years, it’s a Moores’ law, your generation will have to be re-skilled, probably every 5 years, if you want to be employable and if you want to be successful in life. This, today, is not taken into account, neither by the classical education system, nor by many of the companies or many of the big learning institutions.

It’s starting to change but it will have to change very profoundly. So if you want it to happen successfully and quickly, better try to help in the debate, and better be a contributor.

H: And of course the digital revolution and education are linked. 

HDC: Yes of course! Digital is a new way to accumulate and transmit knowledge.

In the past generations, you needed to know how to write. There was a point where the Romans were writing on marble tables: not useful anymore. There was a point where the Germans were learning how to write in gothic letters: useless today! So ask yourself: do you really need a pen ? Or could you use something else, in the digital world.

This is not essential anymore I think. You need to know how to read, to count, you need to know how to speak but I am not sure you need to know how to write. It’s one of the examples of the coming transformation.

H: AXA has just been elected the first digital brand among the large French companies. Are you happy about that? 

HDC: I am never happy. (laughs) Yes we are happy because it is the recognition of the efforts that have been made over the last years, but on the other hand it’s not the end of the journey, it’s just beginning. When I look at all that we can do and at all the talents we have attracted in our digital facilities (our digital laboratories in San Francisco, Singapore and Suresnes), we know have a very significant amount of young people between 22 and 30 who are creating the AXA of tomorrow: it’s great!

H: This AXA of tomorrow, this is something you are preparing now. Is it because your mandate at the head of AXA, which will end in 2018, is your last one?

HDC: It will be, at the latest!

H: Do you know what you want to do after?

HDC: A lot of things! I mean I know and I don’t know, we’ll see. I’ve been with this company for 26 years and I’ve been leading it for now 17 years. There is a point where you need to transmit the keys to the next generation, to give the opportunity to the next generation to put his mark on the company and transform it further. Since I am working with great people, who are better than I am, the sooner I am going to give them the keys the better it’s going to be for the company.

“Look at the CAC 40, most of them are global leaders. Why? Because they are led by teams who have accepted the world as it was, and who have not tried to find excuses or undue protections.”

H: You might have more time for yourself! We talked about the CEO you are, let’s talk a bit more about the man and the city where he lives: Paris. What would you do if you only had 24 hours to spend in Paris? 

HDC: I would spend some time in le Louvre, some time in Notre Dame and I would spend the rest of the time walking in the streets with my wife.

Le Palais du Louvre et la pyramide de Pei

Le Louvre

H: What do you like the most about Paris?

HDC: The culture. The monuments. It used to be a very vibrant city. But not anymore. There is a beautiful cultural heritage, which I love, and I would like to see it going through some revival.

H: It will probably go with France revival don’t you think? In your opinion, what should we do?

HDC: It’s a large program but I think it starts by rebuilding the self-confidence of the nation, and this is not going to come without a clear vision of the future. I don’t want to criticize the political leadership too much, but I think the political leadership, on both sides, has an amazing lack of global vision. Therefor, it’s very difficult, when you don’t understand where the world is probably going, to understand what you want to do in your own country and what are the priorities…

I hope for a situation where someone would come up with a broad vision and with something which would help people regain their self-confidence. This country is a phenomenal country and French are phenomenal people. Look at what private businesses have done: they have done extremely well over the last generations and AXA is not the only successful French company. Look at the CAC 40, most of them are global leaders. Why? Because they are led by teams who have accepted the world as it was, and who have not tried to find excuses or undue protections.

H: Let’s talk about HEC now. We know the campus looked approximately the same at your time that it looks today: what was your preferred place on the HEC campus?

HDC: Well, the size was the same, but it was not as much built as what it is today! There are a number of new buildings, better ones, even if some housing buildings have not changed a lot (laughs). Physically, my preferred place on the campus was down, on the shore of the lake… because it’s the most beautiful place.

H: What else was different at your time?

HDC: The content was different, as they were much fewer international students. The great chance you have, is a much more international audience.

H: If you wanted to convince someone to do HEC today, what would you say?

HDC: HEC has the best standards in international management education, with a strong European/French flavor. And we have to be proud of this French flavor! France is a great country with a great History and of course it has a lot of things to do if it wants to change, but we should not deny the fact that the roots are helpful to develop the tree!

I think we should be proud of these roots, but recognize the fact that HEC Paris is a very open and international school. It’s a great combination of both worlds.

H: If you had only one memory to keep from your years at HEC, what would it be?

HDC: Difficult question. Nothing precise comes to my mind. I think it was more the team spirit: we had a small group of half a dozen friends, doing very different things but we were sticking together on the campus, outside, travelling… So the memory I keep is this sense of community and friendship.

“Your generation will have unique opportunities. It’s one of these few periods in mankind’s history where everything can change, for the best or for the worse because technology is leapfrogging. You will see wonderful things and you will see awful things.”

H: Let’s go back in time now… We are in 1976, you are 22 and you just graduated from HEC. Do you already know what you want to do? 

HDC: Well, I knew what I wanted to do for the following 3 to 5 years but I had no clue of what I would be doing 20 or 30 years later. During my years at HEC I did a Law degree and I wanted to go through the ENA exam at the time, not particularly because I wanted to be a civil servant, but because it was a key to access some jobs which I thought could be interesting for me.

H: You told recently in other interviews that if you were a young graduate from HEC today, you wouldn’t go though the ENA exam today. Can you explain us why?

HDC: Because the world has changed! In 40 years the opening to the world has been phenomenal. Back in the early 70s, doing the civil service school had some sense because it was a way to potentially participate to the development of your own country. There was a great vision as well a many significant and great leaders so there was something you could be part of.

Today it’s very different. If I was 22 today I would immediately go outside: Asia, the US, whatever. You have to look at the world, feel it, understand it and do something with what you learn. I don’t think you can do it if you just stay in your little village.

H: If you had only one advice to give to a 20-year-old HEC, what would it be? 

HDC: Dare, move and go forward! Your generation will have unique opportunities. It’s one of these few periods in mankind’s history where everything can change, for the best or for the worse: technology is leapfrogging, so you will see wonderful things and you will see awful things. But at the end of the day what you need to understand is that your destiny is in your hands. Don’t try to find excuses, do what you want to do and never give up. Never.

We also asked Henri for his personal moto, and he gave it to us. You will discover it at the end of our trip along with all the other ones!

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