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AXA: Creating the New CR Metrics

AXA: Creating the New CR Metrics

A global leader in the insurance and asset management business, AXA had risen to the top ranks in terms of corporate responsibility (CR) as well. In 2014, the French-based insurer led the industry on a number of corporate social responsibility and sustainability indexes. Not content to rest on these laurels, AXA transferred its CR team from the department that included the Communications function to a newly created department combining the Strategy, CR, and Public Affairs functions together, to further integrate CR into the core of the business.

AXA’s business had grown rapidly over the previous decades. The company was formed in the 1980s through the merger of a few mid-sized French insurance firms. From the beginning, AXA’s CEO Claude Bébéar aspired to build the first global insurance brand. The company made a series of acquisitions in the 1990s, including companies in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia. AXA was hailed in the business press for savvy deal-making. The company took over struggling franchises and utilizing its strong balance sheet, technical expertise and abilities in product innovation, managed to turn around their acquisitions. Over time, AXA also branded the companies under the AXA banner, assembling a global brand piece by piece. While Henri de Castries replaced Bébéar as CEO in 2000 and the company faced economic headwinds, AXA continued to produce strong returns.

In 2010, the company announced Ambition AXA, a five-year strategic plan to grow the company. The plan called for harvesting slow-growing businesses in mature markets, investing in emerging markets, and reducing the company’s overall cost of operations. Under the strategy, AXA made significant acquisitions and deals in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The company became the leading foreign insurance provider in China and a player in the Indian market. By 2014, AXA employed 157,000 people across the globe, serviced over 100 million clients, enjoyed a €50 billion market cap, and managed over €1,000 billion in assets. According to Interbrand, AXA’s was the leading global brand name in insurance, and also the leading "green" insurance brand.

Throughout its growth, AXA’s leadership had maintained an interest in corporate social responsibility, and many AXA employees believed that CR was in the DNA of the organization. During 1980s, Bébéar set up a number of organizations to bring business leaders together to tackle social problems and engage in philanthropy. Inside AXA in 1990, the company created AXA Atout Coeur ("Hearts in Action") to encourage and support community engagement by employees, and in 2001 it established the Group’s first "sustainable development" function.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that the company created a formal CR strategy. Following an internal study that argued that corporate responsibility was a key strategic area for the company to pursue, AXA’s first global CR action plan was launched. Under the direction of Alice Steenland, AXA’s CR team created a proprietary CR metric for the company, which was adapted for each of the company’s major operating activities. This metric allowed AXA leadership to assess the company’s CR work and provided a framework for individual units to formulate their own CR goals. The CR team’s work also helped AXA become more visible within the larger CR community and led to the company’s success on ratings metrics constructed by various outside organizations. 

In September of 2014, the CR team's success led AXA leadership to transfer it from the department that included the Communications function to the department comprised of the Strategy and Public Affairs functions. This new integrated department was baptized "Strategy, Sustainability, and Public Affairs." The reorganization inspired a reconsideration of how AXA monitored and measured its CR efforts. The metrics Steenland and her group had constructed were adapted from outside ratings agencies, notably using the Dow Jones Sustainability Index methodology created for investors. As part of the company’s strategy apparatus, Steenland and her team were now looking to create new CR metrics that tied CR work more closely to AXA's operations and growth. To do so, Steenland would have to identify CR issues of particular concern to the company, examine how addressing these CR issues would add value to the company (e.g. by fostering innovation, by reducing costs), and then create metrics that would capture a business unit’s success or failure in addressing the CR issue.

Creating new metrics was a tall order, but would be another step to establishing CR inside AXA. Eventually, the company aspired to produce an “integrated report” that would define the Group’s next strategy for the 2020 time horizon, measured by a set of metrics reflecting in an integrated way the financial, but also the social and environmental, value created by the company.