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Experience Teaches Tech Vet: No Pain, No Gain

Bill Levine is confident AXA Financial is emerging from the current business cycle as a more effective and efficient user of technology.

With characteristic understatement, Bill Levine describes the current business environment as "interesting times." Levine, executive vice president and chief information officer of New York-based AXA Financial, Inc. (2001 assets under management of $480.9 billion), notes there is"a tighter focus on core management skills, and, with fewer resources, how to get the most bang for the buck."

"Things were easier a few years ago," he reflects. "You just went out and bought technology. But today, with the implications of software maintenance costs of 20-plus percent, you have to determine what's the true cost of ownership. We're trying to do things faster and cheaper. All of us have old legacy systems that were written in the '70s. How can we get more out of them?"

Levine stresses that, not only are these kinds of challenges not new, they actually will make AXA Financial a stronger, more competitive organization. "We've been through these times before," declares the financial services veteran, who began his career in the aerospace industry. "We've got to go back to basic management skills. Any time you go through something like this, you're better and more efficient."

One improvement Levine says the tough times have wrought is a different perspective on buying software and services. "You have to look at the total cost, how expensive it's going to be to hook it into our existing systems. We do more vetting of vendors, to narrow the roster," he reports.

Regaining Control

This also forced AXA to kick a heavy consultant habit. In the past year the carrier cut the number of consultants under contract from 350 to 40. And, even when the economy improves, "we won't go back to the way we were before," Levine says. "We're more efficient, with less money being spent, we're driving more products out. Will we give up control? Probably not—we'll reinvest more in the business."

The shift also placed the IT organization squarely at the heart of AXA's most strategic tech initiatives. "Our strategy is, let's outsource the legacy as best as we can, and get our employees working on the new things," Levine says. "Before, consultants did the new work. Now, we want to get our people where the strategic initiatives are."

In fact, Levine's primary focus is on applications. Infrastructure (including data centers and telecommunications) is managed via both insourcing and outsourcing arrangements by AXA Technology, a recently created global organization headed by Leon Billis, who preceded Levine in his role (and who was a 2000 Elite 8 honoree).

Levine is talking from experience when he cites previous business cycles. Prior to coming to AXA in January 2001, he was senior vice president with responsibility for Y2K compliance at Paine Webber, which he joined in 1997. Before that he worked for 17 years at IBM, including serving as vice president of business solutions for financial services worldwide, and as director and branch manager responsible for financial services industry consulting.

At IBM he worked with executives of several firms, including Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Chemical Bank (both of which became parts of what is now JP Morgan Chase) and The Equitable (precursor to AXA Financial), who eventually joined AXA's management team. The ex-clients enticed Levine to join AXA following his September 2000 retirement from Paine Webber.

His Y2K experiences confirmed Levine's belief in the importance of strong project management disciplines. Under his direction, AXA Financial has implemented a rigorous governance process that determines all IT initiatives and spending. The IT Governance process created under Levine's watch was deemed so effective that it was implemented company-wide and is now known as Enterprise Governance.

The first stage of the process requires each business group, including IT, to identify projects it wants to undertake. "Next, the business units put together a list of 'must-have' and 'nice-to-have' projects," which are prioritized within each group, Levine relates.

Funds are then allocated for discretionary spending. The projects and budgets are reviewed by the governance committee, chaired by AXA Financial's CEO Christopher Condron, CFO Stanley Tulin, and the firm's 11 EVPs. Among the information that is required is anticipated ROI, "all the costs for development and maintenance, and the total cost of ownership," Levine says. "If they make the right business case, we do the project. Everyone knows if you want to do a project, this is how it gets approved."

The scrutiny doesn't end when the project is OK'd. For big projects, Levine gets periodic reports that color code the progress. He extrapolates a summary that he reviews with CEO Condron during monthly review meetings.

Two major projects that survived the process and are nearing completion are a new commission system (the first part of which is scheduled to launch Jan. 1, 2003) and a new agent workstation. The agent workstation will be Siebel Systems (San Mateo, CA), but "it has to be married to our data," Levine states. Having been through three rounds with the governance committee, the workstation "is on schedule to be delivered in the second half of 2003. We will do it at a much reduced cost than other workstations have been built for in the past," he reports.



Executive Vice President and CIO, AXA Financial, Inc.


EDUCATION: Brooklyn College, BS in mathematics; Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; IBM-sponsored executive development program.

INTERESTS/HOBBIES: "I have two grandchildren, and enjoy spending time with them. I play golf—terribly. But I don't care because I don't keep score."

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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