France's biggest insurance group AXA said Monday that its boss Henri de Castries is to step down, with a British newspaper saying he may take over at banking giant HSBC.
"After 27 years in the group, and close to 17 years as chief executive officer, Henri de Castries, chairman and CEO of AXA, has announced his decision to retire and to step down from the board of directors on September 1st, 2016," AXA said in a statement.
The Sunday Times, citing an unnamed source, said at the weekend that the AXA chief was favourite to succeed current HSBC chairman Douglas Flint after joining the board of the British global bank, Europe's largest, on March 1.
A spokesman for HSBC in London dismissed the report as "speculation" in an email to AFP.
Last week, Flint told HSBC shareholders that the bank had started looking for his successor who would probably be named next year "but the exact timing is clearly dependent upon identifying and securing the appropriate candidate," he said.
De Castries, 61, is from an old French aristocratic family and reportedly a descendant of the notorious Marquis de Sade.
He went to the ENA elite school for top civil servants at the same time as President Francois Hollande, Hollande's former partner and current Environment Minister Segolene Royal and Michel Sapin, who is now finance minister.
His early jobs in government included a stint at the French Treasury in the 1980s, where he was closely involved with former prime minister Edouard Balladur's privatisation programme and later became head of the Treasury's foreign exchange operations.
He is said to be close to both Hollande and former president Nicolas Sarkozy. He often speaks out on French politics, society and economics in media interviews.
AXA, second in Europe only to German giant Allianz, said its board had unanimously decided at a meeting Saturday to separate the chairman and chief executive functions.
Replacing de Castries will be Denis Duverne as non-executive chairman of the board of directors and Thomas Buberl as chief executive officer of AXA and a member of is board.
- 'Great shape' -
De Castries has been at the helm of Axa since 2000 and led the insurer's refocusing on its core businesses insurance and asset management, its expansion into emerging markets and the sale of underperforming assets.
This led to a sharp drop in its gearing -- or debt level compared to share capital -- which stood at 23 percent at the end of 2015 compared to 54 percent when de Castries took over in 2000.
Last month AXA said net profit surged 12 percent in 2015 to 5.61 billion euros ($6.16 billion).
In a letter to colleagues, de Castries said he believed his "deeply and carefully thought-out choice" to step down came at "the best moment" to hand over the leadership as the group had "never been in such a great shape".
"The best moment because it is only natural that a new team launches and manages our new strategic plan to be announced in June 2016" and expected to set out plans for the group's digital transformation, he added.
The Sunday Times said former Diageo boss Paul Walsh is also in the running to take the helm at HSBC but that he had run into opposition from one of the bank's large shareholders.
HSBC said last month that it would remain headquartered in Britain, after examining the possibility of moving to Hong Kong.
HSBC has been based in Britain since 1992 when it took over Midland Bank and shifted its headquarters from Hong Kong to London.
It was founded in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1865 and 48,000 of its 257,000 global staff are in Britain.