Lifestyle Personal Lines the May 2015 issue

Hervé Balzano, head of AXA Employee Benefits

Working here in the U.S., you can feel the intensity, the vibration. People are very engaged.
By Chris Hann Posted on April 29, 2015
I know a lot of New Yorkers who dream of living in Paris. Do Parisians dream of living in New York?
Yes, I really think so. My wife actually went to high school in the United States. I was born and grew up in Paris, but I spent my early days—vacations, summers, Easter—with my grandparents in Corsica, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea between France and Italy. Some of my family is still there. It was a really good mix between the crazy Parisian life and the serenity of Corsican life.

Had you been to the United States before moving here last summer?
Yes, many times. My first time was to California for the 1994 World Cup. I was a student at the time. Living in the United States, this is another story. We really like it, actually. We have quite a large family, from 16 to four years old, three girls and two boys.

Tell me about your childhood.
I learned music at a conservatory for seven years. I spent all my free time on the tennis courts and soccer fields. I come from a big tennis family—everybody plays tennis. When I was a student, I studied hard but also traveled and had a busy social life. All are good ways to learn in life.

How did you get into the insurance business?
When I was at university, a professor said, very seriously, “The demand for insurance professionals is only growing. It’s a good industry to be in.” He added, more importantly, “besides all the arrogant young graduates want to work in finance…not insurance.”

What do you do in New York when you’re not working?
I spend all my time with what I call my “tribe.” They’re really all unique and demanding. I play tennis with my children and my wife, who is a very good player.

So have you found a decent French restaurant in New York?
(Long pause.)

That doesn’t sound good.
Yeah, I have to be honest. It took me a while, but I did recently find one in SoHo called Ladurée.

Do you have a favorite New York museum?
MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art).

Why MoMA?
Because it is modern art. And the restaurant there, The Modern, is good as well.

Tell me about your business.
Employee Benefits is a new operation for AXA in the United States. We are in start-up mode. We are building everything from the ground up—the team, the technology and service platform, and our products. It’s an exciting time as we prepare for the operation to officially begin in Q3.

How is your work life different in New York?
Working here in the U.S., you can feel the intensity, the vibration. People are very engaged. When they say, “I’m in,” they are really in.

Your office is on Sixth Avenue. What’s the best part about the neighborhood?
It’s right next to MoMA and Radio City Music Hall.

You’re a big believer in your white board. Why a white board?
I do everything on the white board. I’m always concerned that everybody should be on the same page. It’s much more powerful. Just to be sure everybody can visualize what we plan to do or think. Often it’s more efficient to draw than just talk and talk.

Who was your most influential business mentor?
I have two people in mind—colleagues at AXA from France: Patricia Delaux, who headed the employee benefits mid-sized market business, and Didier Weckner, who is CEO of AXA France Group Life Business. They were really influential to me. In France, we say they are really, truly “complete in both the head and the legs.”

If there were one thing about the insurance industry that you could change, what would it be?
We have to listen more to our customers. Even if we are a big industry and already successful, we must continue to keep our eyes and ears open and stay focused on our customers. Insurance isn’t just about the financials we provide. The way we differentiate is to deliver a real service that helps guide our customers to make the right decisions. We have to provide a solution for them to obtain peace of mind.

What gives you your leader’s edge?
My trust in people. That’s what makes a difference. The main difference is I provide a lot of confidence and I trust people, and I think that’s really the way to do things.

The Balzano File

Age: 46

Hometown: Paris

Family: Wife, Anne (married 18 years); Victor, 16; Clemence, 14; Josephine, 11; Theodore, 7; Marguerite, 4

Last Book Read: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (“I recommend this book because it really helps to see how digital technology influences our economy and our life.”)
Last movie saw: The Imitation Game

Wheels: Audi A5 coupe

Chris Hann Associate Editor Read More

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