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Industry transformation keeps things interesting for AXA Client Solutions' Leon Billis.

In his 36-year career with the company known now as AXA Client Solutions, Leon Billis has experienced countless changes: in his company and industry, his job and responsibilities, and technology. But while such upheaval might leave most people reeling, Billis says he thrives on it.

"I like to view change as challenging," he says. "Without change, things might get boring in a couple of years."

Boredom should continue to be a non-issue for Billis, executive vice president and chief information officer of AXA Client Solutions, a subsidiary of AXA Financial (New York, $483.7 billion in assets), previously known as The Equitable Companies, Inc. As part of an organization that exemplifies the trends of globalization and convergence,Billis (who oversees application development, telecommunications, strategy and architecture, infrastructure and e-commerce) is on the front lines of the company's efforts to become more customer-focused and flexible in its use of technology.

Just a few years ago, notes Billis, who began his career at The Equitable in 1964 in the data processing department, "our company viewed IT as a cost center." But when Ed Miller came over from Chase in 1997 to become CEO, "he set forth a strategy that moved the company from basically being an insurance company to being a financial services company." To achieve this vision, IT would have to become "a strategic enabler—it is what is going to allow us to succeed."

This wasn't just a slogan: The annual IT budget has tripled in the past few years from roughly $100 million to just over $300 million. But, Billis notes, realizing the vision also would take more than money. "We really had to reposture the whole organization. So we went through an IT transformation."

Billis' first priority involved strengthening the management in the IT organization. "We recognized we need to hire the 'best of class,' so we put a whole recruiting program in place," he says. "We recruit from the best companies, and we will pay what it takes to bring in top talent."

Billis also created a college recruiting program, now in its third year. "We hire 25 college recruits a year, from some of the best schools. They go through an 18-month development program with us," he says. "This gives us what is basically a farm team of highly skilled, new-thinking professionals."

At the same time, Billis has focused on changing the corporate culture. "We defined our culture as, this is going to be an organization where it's a great place to work," he says. "That's very important because technology is so hot, turnover and recruiting are very difficult issues—and retaining people is also difficult. It's more than just recruiting at the right compensation level. It's providing a total environment, so they feel this is a professional environment, they are challenged in their work, they have career path opportunities, and they have flexibility."

These efforts have paid off. "We've hired more than 300 people in the past three years, at all levels," Billis reports. There are nearly 900 people in the IT organization, and Billis anticipates that within the next 24 months that number will surpass 1,000. "We'll probably be investing $1 billion in strategic initiatives, and a big chunk of that will be in IT." Just as noteworthy, turnover was reduced to 5.7 percent in 1999.

Another priority was aligning IT professionals more closely with their business colleagues. "Billis provides the right environment and tools to the business people, so they can leverage the appropriate data and technologies" to do their jobs, notes one member of I&T's Elite 8 Consultants Advisory Board. Explains Billis, "We realigned development groups so they're lined up with each of our business areas—in fact, we co-locate them with the business community, so they become part of their behavior, thinking and culture."

The next challenge he tackled was creation of what he calls an "architectural blueprint, which would enable us to have ease of interoperability, but also reusability." This, Billis says, is essential to AXA Financial's plan to become a multi-channel financial services organization serving many different entities, from individual clients, to agents and financial planners, to institutions such as Merrill Lynch and Salomon Smith Barney.

Another change has been in how technology projects were planned and executed. "In the past we would deliver, but we didn't have the discipline in place to know if we were tracking on budget, or whether we had all the resources we needed," Billis says. He oversaw creation of a project management office, "so we would have strong disciplines in how we manage projects, from inception to implementation."

More importantly, the organization has shifted from a scope-driven ("What is the deliverable?") approach to projects to a time-driven approach. This concept is something Billis acknowledges he adopted at a later stage of his career. "I've become more aware of the importance of disciplined project management. I wasn't always a fan. But you have to have that in order to understand your resource requirements, and to be able to track, and identify very early on whether things are on the right schedule, on the right track—or not."

Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio

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