From Lancaster MBA to AXA CEO

Thomas Buberl leaning against a wooden bannister in Lancaster University Management School

He leads a global company that employs close to 150,000 staff, with total assets exceeding €775 billion, and a net operating income of more than €7 billion. But if he could, Thomas Buberl would love to come back to Lancaster University Management School as a student.

Thomas (MBA, 1999) has been Chief Executive Officer of AXA, the multi-billion-euro French insurance and financial services company, since 2016.

It is the latest step in an immensely successful journey that has seen Thomas go from Lancaster to the Boston Consulting Group, where he specialised in banking and insurance both in his native Germany and internationally, the Winterthur Group, Zurich Insurance Group, and then onto AXA.

Under his leadership, AXA has flourished, while Thomas also serves on the board of IBM, and is a board member or trustee of a wide variety of non-profit organisations, including the World Economic Forum, the Institute of International Finance and the Geneva Association.

It is a stellar career, one that was recognised when Thomas returned to Lancaster in December after 25 years to receive the Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award during the winter graduation ceremonies.

Thomas Buberl (left), in graduation gown and hat, stands with University Chancellor, the Rt Hon Alan Milburn in front of a background decorated with the Lancaster University logo.

The trip back to Lancaster immediately took Thomas back to a time when he learned a lot inside and outside the classroom, met his wife Jane, and laid the foundations for his future success. It also prompted him to ponder returning as a student – joining his daughter, who is studying in the Law School – and to admire how LUMS has grown in the intervening years.

“It was obviously a very emotional moment because I have really not been back beforehand,” says Thomas. “Twenty-five years afterwards, it is a great moment to see what is still there when I was there, but also to see that many things have evolved, have changed, have progressed.

“Being in the Management School was just amazing to see how it has been redesigned and how it has been adapted to the new ways of working. I would love to come back as a student if I could.”

He adds: “As I reflect on my time at Lancaster, it’s not just the academic excellence that comes to mind, but the vibrant experiences that have shaped part of who I am today. I vividly remember late nights at the library – in pubs too – and the camaraderie that comes from embracing challenges together.

“Coming back also makes me remember how much I enjoyed spending time on this beautiful campus, right in the middle of nature. I shared some great moments here, with classmates who have become lifelong friends, but also moments of true intellectual complicity with caring teachers. Last but certainly not least, I met the woman of my life here on campus.”

Thomas’s return was the first time he had attended a graduation at Lancaster. He missed his MBA ceremony – he considers his return a ‘celebration long overdue’ – as he started out in his career. He carried the lessons from the MBA forward throughout his rise through the insurance industry, picking up new skills all the time along the way.

“I learned a lot for my life (at Lancaster), both on the very concrete and rational subjects, but also on the soft subjects that are very important in leadership,” Thomas says. “I remember the studying was very practical, with a lot of case studies, and with a lot of group work. When you look at how you need to work in a company and make a company prosper, it's exactly that.

“In business, every day there are new issues coming up. You need to face them. You need to invent solutions, and you need to do it together in a team. And this is exactly what I learned here.

“Twenty-five years after Lancaster, you have added a lot of ideas, experienced things that you have learned into it. There will certainly be still some grains of Lancaster in it, but it has been enriched in 25 years of doing many, many other things.”

Asked what advice he would give to current Lancaster students, Thomas is keen to stress the need to live in the now, and not make grand plans for many years down the line. He graduated unsure where his career would take him, but the move into consulting laid the pathway to insurance and where he is now – somewhere hard to imagine all those years ago.

“Take it easy,” Thomas advises. “If you make a big plan about your career, I can assure you it will not plan out like this. You need to capture the opportunities and the challenges as you go along, and your journey is really a sequence of many of these events. Let yourself just drive through life and see what you like, what you don't like. And this will make a good career.”

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