Subscriber OnlyBusiness

Axa Ireland CEO Marguerite Brosnan: ‘My job is to understand complexity to make things really simple’

Head of largest insurer in the State says deal to take over Laya Healthcare is ‘transformative’

Marguerite Brosnan was in the Pyrenees mountain region in southern France last July enjoying her first family holiday since taking over as chief executive of Axa Insurance in Ireland six months earlier when she got a call that would cut the break short.

The company been just been selected as preferred bidder for Laya Healthcare, the Republic’s second-largest health insurer, which had come on the market months earlier – at a time when Brosnan and her team were looking to expand the business.

“I’m normally very good at keeping time boxed off in relation to downtime, but this deal was transformative,” says Brosnan in an interview with The Irish Times. “I think my family understood.”

The €650 million deal, struck in early August and completed in October, is the biggest carried out by Paris-based Axa Group in Ireland since it secured a major foothold in the market 25 years ago by acquiring the country’s largest motorinsurer at the time, Guardian PMPA Insurance, as part of a multibillion-euro international deal.


‘... the biggest diversification opportunity was always going to be health and when I came in as CEO we looked at how we could genuinely do something in that space’

—  Marguerite Brosnan

“Everybody thinks of Axa as a motor business here. And, yes, we’re by far the market leader in that market, but we have also diversified over a period into commercial [insurance],” says Brosnan of a business that has a 32 per cent share of the motor market in the Republic and has seen its slice of the commercial activity – including farm coverage – expand from 8 per cent to 12 per cent over the past four years.

“But the biggest diversification opportunity was always going to be health and when I came in as CEO we looked at how we could genuinely do something in that space.”

It emerged in early May that a subsidiary of US insurance giant AIG, which bought Laya in 2015 for €80 million, had hoisted a “for sale” sign over the business. Axa had submitted its bid before Brosnan headed off on her curtailed family break.

The purchase has given Axa a 28 per cent share of the Irish health coverage market with almost 700,000 customers and annual premiums of €800 million. Laya traces its roots back to the formation of Bupa Ireland in 1997. It also went through a period of ownership by businessman Seán Quinn before his insurance empire imploded in 2010.

Based in Cork and led by long-standing managing director Dónal Clancy, Laya has essentially been an intermediary since 2012, offering health policies underwritten by a unit of Swiss Re called Elips Insurance.

Brosnan confirms that Axa is now in talks with the Swiss reinsurance giant about taking over as underwriter. “But to do that, we need to go through a change of business plan with the Central Bank,” she says.

Axa hopes to be able to start underwriting Laya policies “at some stage next year”, she says. She suggests Axa could take on staff from the Swiss Re underwriting business in Dublin as part of the process.

The Tipperary native, but Kilkenny resident, suggests that she would also like to see the group underwriting Laya’s offering of life insurance, which is currently done by another Swiss Re unit, and travel insurance, which is underwritten by AIG.

“We’re trying to do this in a phased way. We have an awful lot going on in the organisation today but it’s probably something for the agenda further down the road,” she says.

The middle child of a family of five, Brosnan started school at the age of three. With good reason. “I was a child that my mother couldn’t keep still,” she says, “so she sent me out to school very early.”

In 1994, a friend working in Bank of Ireland alerted her to hiring going on at the time in the bank’s life unit. ‘And that’s how I fell into financial services,’ Brosnan says

Following school – “something I meandered through without really knowing what I wanted to be” – she went on to study science and maths at University College Dublin.

Brosnan was nudged in the direction of doing a higher diplomat in education on graduating and went on to teach for a period in Dublin. “But it just didn’t give me a buzz.”

In 1994, a friend working in Bank of Ireland alerted her to hiring going on at the time in the bank’s life unit. “And that’s how I fell into financial services,” Brosnan says. She would remain with the bank until 2020, rising up the ranks through nine different roles, ending up as managing director of Bank of Ireland Insurance Services and director of transformation in its New Ireland life assurance unit.

“There were a number of people who were really good mentors to me... from a succession and talent development perspective, they were always looking for people who were willing to push themselves,” she says.

Between 2006 and 2014, which covered the end of the Celtic Tiger period, through the financial crash and Bank of Ireland managing to stand out across the sector by avoiding nationalisation, Brosnan was regional sales manager and regional manager for the bank’s business banking operation in the southeast of the State.

“We spent a lot of time dealing with customers one-on-one, trying to make sure we could restructure [debt] and get through some of the challenges they had,” she says of the time. “But you also really had to think about supporting staff, who were hearing horror stories about some of the challenges customers had.”

What are the key lessons that she has carried from the tumultuous period?

“The first one is honesty and transparency. When there is a crisis, you have to be very clear with people about where you’re heading. You have to communicate with people on a regular basis to bring them on that journey with you.”

Brosnan had long seen herself as someone who could be a Bank of Ireland lifer.

“I had a number of approaches at different times on various opportunities. But they were never the right one for me. I was always very clear: the only reason I would leave Bank of Ireland was for an opportunity I couldn’t pass,” she says.

That occurred in 2020 when she was approached about the role of director of retail at Axa Ireland.

“And I thought: this is largest insurer in the country, it was likely the CEO was going to retire in a period of time, and it’s a global organisation that has invested heavily in Ireland – not only in this business but several other companies Axa has in Ireland,” she recalls. “And I went: if I don’t move now, it’s not going to happen.”

Pandemic restrictions at the time meant that the recruitment interviews largely took place remotely.

“I met the team that I was going to work with on Teams,” she says, referring to the Microsoft videoconferencing and chat product. “I was thinking at the time, ‘What am I after doing, taking on a job in the middle of Covid, where you can meet nobody and can’t get a feel for an organisation?’ But, to be fair, the group and the [local business] put themselves out of their way to help me make connections.”

The CEO role at the Irish unit opened up in 2021 when Philip Bradley, who had been with the French insurance giant from 1978 and led the Irish business for seven years, laid out plans to retire. Brosnan took charge in January of last year.

The takeover of Laya, which has about 600 staff, has increased Axa Ireland’s staff to 2,100.

“This is a huge opportunity for Laya as well. They’re the No. 2 player in the health market. We’re the No. 1 in general insurance and have huge scale,” she says.

Axa Ireland in 2022 became the first general insurer to hit the €1 billion mark on the island of Ireland in terms of gross written premiums, having increased by 5 per cent on the year, according to its latest annual financial statement. Still, net profit declined by 18 per cent to €92.6 million as the group increased provisions for insurance claims. The company paid out €200 million in dividends to its immediate parent over the past three years.

Brosnan declined to comment on the financial figures for 2023. The average motor premium fell 22 per cent between their peak in late 2017 and the end of 2022, according to Central Bank data, helped by an industry-wide decline in claims costs after new personal injury guidelines were approved by the Judicial Council in early 2021.

However, Brosnan says that coverage prices “were fairly flat” last year, as an ongoing decline in injury awards was offset by a spike in motor damage costs, amid inflation for labour and car parts.

“The cost of a headlight of a Volkswagen Golf, for example, has gone up by over €500 since 2015,” she notes. “Everything has been pushed up, and it takes longer to get spare parts.”

She also noted that a lot of personal injury cases going through – or likely to end up in – litigation remain in limbo pending a ruling from the Supreme Court on a significant test case, heard a year ago, concerning challenge to the constitutionality of the awards guidelines.

“We’re still in uncertain times until we have that ruling,” she says. “But we’ve built in the assumption that [litigated awards] are going to come down, so our customers have seen some of the advantages in terms of that legislation to date. But as things become more certain, it will give us an opportunity to maybe rethink our position.”

Half of all injury claims settled in 2022 were resolved under personal injury guidelines – up from 16 per cent for the previous year, according to the latest Central Bank figures.

The average cost of injury cases managed directly by insurers that year was 47 per cent below those settled against a previous set of guidelines contained in the so-called book of quantum. The average cost of cases settled through the Injuries Resolution Board (IRB) – formerly the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) – was 32 per cent lower.

However, only a small number of litigated claims were settled under the guidelines, as most cases resolved through this channel were filed before the changes came into effect.

‘I do love working with people. That’s where I get my energy,’ says Brosnan, who has eschewed a personal office as CEO to work among colleagues

Other Government reforms of the sector in recent times include the enactment of laws last year to strengthen IRB’s role, including the introduction of a mediation service, as well as legislation aimed at balancing a property owner or business’s responsibilities with those of customers or the general public.

These have helped attract a major new entrant to the Irish market, Australia’s OUTsurance, which plans to enter the motor and home insurance market in the first half of this year. In addition, Italian insurance giant Generali in January completed the purchase of Liberty Mutual’s businesses in Ireland, Spain and Portugal last year in a deal worth €2.3 billion. It marks a return by the Italian group to the Irish general insurance market some 22 years after it closed its Dublin office.

Axa, with 34 branches across the Republic and Northern Ireland, generates more than 40 per cent of its business directly, with the remainder coming through brokers and tied agents Supervalu and AIB. By contrast, most of Axa’s other markets across Europe are dominated by the tied agents channel.

Brosnan describes her management style as “energetic” and “collaborative” and says she likes detail and complexity because of her maths background, but has to force herself not to get bogged down in it. “But my job is to understand complexity to make things really simple,” she says.

“I do love working with people. That’s where I get my energy,” says Brosnan, who has eschewed a personal office as CEO to work among colleagues.

“When I’m have a really bad day, or a bad week, I like to go and sit among the customer contact teams and listen to what they do. That resets me.”

Name: Marguerite Brosnan

Position: CEO of Axa Insurance in Ireland

Lives: Kilkenny

Family: Has two daughters and lives with her partner in Kilkenny

Hobbies: “If spending time with my two gorgeous dogs named Marley and Pepe is a hobby then it is the best of hobbies!”

Something about Brosnan that you might expect: Work life balance is extremely important to her

Something about Brosnan that might surprise: She enjoyed spending a summer while still at school testing cattle with her local vet so much she thought about becoming a vet

Joe Brennan

Joe Brennan

Joe Brennan is Markets Correspondent of The Irish Times