When the top executives at Axa Financial Inc. charted their course into the future of financial services, they settled on at least one thing they would rather not be: a bank.
The New York company, which is majority-owned by the huge French insurer Axa Group, was built around a blend of brokerage, insurance, and asset management businesses that it says will enable it to stand out from a pack of investment and commercial banks.
Axa Financial used to be called Equitable Cos. and is probably still best known for Equitable, the U.S. life insurance company it owns. Axa also owns a 70% stake in Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., the investment bank, and a 57% stake in Alliance Capital Corp., the mutual fund company.
Equitable accounted for 50% of the $1.1 billion of profits that Axa Financial reported for last year. Executives say the company stands a better chance of building that business by avoiding the path Travelers Group took when it merged with Citicorp two years ago to form Citigroup Inc.
For one thing, banks are a main channel for distributing Axas products. That alone makes Michael Hegarty, vice chairman and chief operating officer at Axa Financial, leery of hooking up with a bank or a large securities company.
We want the freedom to distribute through as many desktops as possible, Mr. Hegarty said. We plan to build a financial services company on our own. A deal with a major bank would close more doors than it would open, though the company has applied for a thrift charter as a way to expand distribution.
Mr. Hegarty said the strategy that Axas three business units are pursuing has one ingredient in common: financial planning services for individuals. The company is moving to strengthen the units ties to tap the burgeoning advisory market.
By any measure, the U.S. asset management industry is growing by leaps and bounds. It is projected that the number of U.S. households using financial advisors will climb from 11 million to 60 million over the next 15 years. Investment management is expected to create more than two-thirds of the growth in financial services in the next few years, and revenues from asset management, now around $250 billion, will soar, analysts say.
People are becoming far more concerned about outliving their money than dying prematurely, Mr. Hegarty said.
For Axa Financial, this trend has translated into hefty growth. Since 1994, assets under management at the company have climbed to $463 billion, from $173 billion. Earnings per share have risen 28% a year in the same period and return on equity has gone from 8.7% to 18.7%. Profits last year were nearly $1.1 billion, up 32.2%.
Axa is hardly alone in its desire to diversify. Merrill Lynch & Co., American Express Co., Citigroup, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and commercial banks including Wells Fargo and Chase Manhattan Corp. are all attempting in different fashions to build financial conglomerates, and all their plans emphasize asset management services.
Axas strategy is not unique in positioning the company as a financial planner, but not every company is going to execute well, said Robert Lee, an analyst at PaineWebber Group. They will increasingly benefit from common ownership.
Axa Financial is steaming ahead with plans to revamp its technology, build a bigger distribution network, and convert its salespeople into full-fledged financial planning consultants.
Much of the effort is being invested in Axa Client Solutions, the umbrella unit for Equitable life insurance and Axa Advisors, the retail financial planning operation. Other areas are also getting major attention; around $2 billion a year is being pumped into investments in technology under the code name project Atlas that will help the both expand distribution and create a common system architecture that will enable communication between Axa units.
Axa is also investing to expand DLJ Direct, the online discount brokerage service offshoot of Donaldson Lufkin, into e-commerce. Both Alliance Capital and Donaldson Lufkin are expanding globally. That growth includes Alliances research and investment offices and fund sales and DLJs activities in Europe and Asia, among them the creation of a Japanese version of DLJ Direct.
Mr. Hegarty, who describes banks as culturally handicapped in their efforts to navigate the changing financial services business, is himself an ex-banker. He quit Chase about two years ago and joined a former Chase colleague, Edward D. Miller, who is Axa Financials president and chief executive officer.
Mr. Hegarty is quick to say that the effort to forge stronger ties among Axas operating units is being approached with caution. He is well versed in integration, having participated in the mergers of Manufacturers Hanover Corp. and Chemical Banking Corp. and later of Chemical and Chase.
Observers have said those two mergers went relatively well. But others have been saddled by technical glitches and a failure to recognize the cost of eliminating powerful brand names.
Mr. Hegarty said that though there are considerable synergies and cost savings to be gained from consolidating Axas units, the businesses they are involved in remain fundamentally separate. Hence, its plan now is to maintain the separate brands even though it is expensive to do so, he said.
And Axa Financial is not trying to replicate Citigroup. This is not exactly the Citigroup model, where theyre going to try to cross-sell everything like crazy, PaineWebbers Mr. Lee said. And theyre certainly not going to take tons of insurance products and shove them through Donaldson Lufkin.
Having watched banks move too fast to extract the maximum savings from mergers, Axa says it has chosen to move gradually.
What Ed [Mr. Miller] and I plan to do, what we are doing in a measured way, is taking the expenses out without destroying the underlying business, Mr. Hegarty said. As we take expenses out of some areas, we will be investing to build others.