PARIS • AXA chief executive Henri de Castries will step down in September after nearly 17 years at the top of Europe's second-largest insurer, fuelling talk that his next role could be as HSBC chairman.
Mr Castries, who joined AXA in 1989, has spent the past five years expanding the group's business into emerging markets with a €5.1 billion (S$7.8 billion) acquisition spree in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
In a letter to staff announcing his departure, the 61-year-old Mr Castries, whose mandate was scheduled to last till 2018, said: "It is only natural that a new team launches and manages our new strategic plan to be announced in June 2016."
Mr Thomas Buberl, 42, who heads AXA's German business, has been appointed deputy chief executive and will take over from Mr Castries when he leaves in September.
Mr Castries' departure is the latest in a series of leadership changes at European insurers, with Prudential, Zurich, Old Mutual and Munich Re all announcing new chief executives in the past year.
Under a five-year strategic plan completed last year, AXA consolidated its position as Europe's second-biggest insurer after Germany's Allianz by trimming its exposure to mature markets and increasingly focusing on faster growing emerging markets where insurance coverage remains low.
The insurer reported net income of €5.62 billion (S$8.6 billion) last year. It has grown in emerging markets from China to Colombia over the past five years.
Mr Castries is seen as a front-runner to take over from Mr Douglas Flint as HSBC chairman, having joined the bank's board last year.
HSBC said last week that it had begun to look for a replacement for Mr Flint and expected to nominate someone next year.
"I think Henri de Castries is quite likely to replace Flint, (I) have been hearing that for the last nine months," one HSBC shareholder told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
"He is in a learning phase now and could step up next year".
HSBC said the bank did not comment on speculation.
Mr Castries tried to dampen the speculation, saying people should not turn the timing of announcements of management changes at AXA and HSBC into an "event".
Incoming CEO Mr Buberl is expected to focus on shareholder returns and changes in digital technology, a London-based analyst said.
The announcement of his elevation represents a generational shift at the insurer, where chief executives normally serve for at least 10 years.
But the move also retains some continuity of management. AXA said it will split the chairmanship role from that of chief executive.
The current deputy CEO in charge of finance, Mr Denis Duverne, 62, will replace Mr Castries as chairman.
Mr Buberl would be a rare foreign boss among leading French companies.
He was born in the German town of Wuppertal and educated in Germany, Britain, and Switzerland.
Since joining AXA in 2012, he has headed the group's life and savings business as well as its health line.
Previously, he worked at the Winterthur group, which was acquired by AXA in 2006, and Zurich Insurance Group.