Axel Andre says he knows he’s not discovering new laws of nature as CFO for Individual Retirement at international financial giant AIG—but he’s okay with that.
“It is intellectually stimulating work,” he says. “It requires problem-solving at a high level and the decisions I make are consequential. Our Individual Retirement business helps millions of Americans achieve financial and retirement security, so even for a physicist, it is incredibly satisfying.”
You read that correctly. Andre did not find his way to his position at AIG through extensive financial education and a workmanlike journey from banker to C-suite. He got his PhD in physics from Harvard University and began work as a physicist before realizing the academic and administrative work he was doing didn’t have the same amount of excitement he had experienced while studying. He says he was hungry for a more diverse experience and a broader group of people with whom to connect.
“I was looking to do work that would have a more direct impact and be part of a dynamic environment,” he recalls. “I then found out that a lot of physicists ultimately look at quantitative finance as a career.”
And why not?
“The math involved in finance is quite similar to nineteenth-century physics,” Andre notes.
So, in January 2006, Andre joined Goldman Sachs as an associate, advising insurance companies on matters such as risk management, capital management, and the various types of annuities. He says he gravitated to thought leadership, partnering with sales associates, bankers, and clients (the physicist’s parallel would be “experimentalists”), working to solve problems and explain complex concepts in the simplest way possible. He found himself in a variety of board rooms, working closely with Fortune 500 CFOs and various executives and found that all his training perfectly suited him to these interactions.
Andre worked his way up to managing director at Goldman Sachs before making the move in 2013 to AIG, which employs more than 56,000 people throughout more than 80 countries and jurisdictions around the world. He became senior managing director—as well as chief risk officer—before ascending to the role of business unit CFO in 2017.
“Axel is one of those rare individuals who is both very adaptable and has a diverse range of knowledge and experience,” says Peter Phillips, president and CEO of Aon’s PathWise Solutions Group. “He brought his scientific intellect to the business world and has since forged enormous success and strong, long-standing relationships.”
The challenges afforded by AIG, he says, are the stuff of dreams for a man raised and educated in the realm of problem solving and predictive analysis.
“Fundamentally, the finance function at AIG is evolving away from the stable tradition of simply reporting information,” Andre says. “We realized we need to do it in a way that’s automated with less of a pull on people and time, so that we can concentrate our efforts on forward-thinking initiatives and providing advice to our business partners.”
That involves working with the CEO on various strategic matters and analyzing what aspects of a volatile and ever-changing market that AIG—and Andre in particular—can control. “Control” in the financial sector is a fluid term at best and anyone who works in that particular line of business is accustomed to uncertainty, although it can often prove stressful to even the most seasoned of veterans. Andre, however, says he finds solace in the chaos of every-changing priorities.
“I find it fun to be thrown into the middle of a variety of issues,” he says. “You can never predict exactly what’s going to happen, but you can be prepared. It calls upon your judgment and your ability to arrange priorities.”
It also can pose the constant threat of numbers fatigue or, as Andre calls it, “analysis paralysis.” That is the point where so much predictive work has to be done in a condensed period of time that it can lead someone in his position, a business partner, or a client to be gun-shy about making the deal. Time-sensitive decisions to execute transactions without the ideal amount of effort needed (or available) to complete a full risk analysis is part and parcel of doing business in the quick-fire world of financial analysis.
“I find it fun to be thrown into the middle of a variety of issues. You can never predict exactly what’s going to happen, but you can be prepared. It calls upon your judgement and your ability to arrange priorities.”
Although it is a bit more informed than shooting from the hip, Andre says time is not a luxury that he has for many decisions. Sometimes it’s a matter of being comfortable with 80 percent certainty rather than 100 percent confidence.
“Oftentimes we can’t get an exact answer, so the question becomes: How can you be comfortable with imperfect information?” he asks. “How do you get a client or a business partner to buy into a concept or sign on to something when you can’t give them every bit of detailed information they would want for a high-stakes transaction? We have decades-long relationships with many of our clients and partners, but major transactions warrant loads of background. Sometimes the only thing that helps move it along is the fact that the clock on the wall is ticking.”
There’s also the fact that Andre is very good at what he does. A natural problem-solver, Andre says he relishes the opportunity to collaborate on problems that might have little consequence on nature and the very laws of physics, but nevertheless mean the world to clients who are planning their retirement or a particular company’s bottom line.
“Milliman really enjoys supporting cutting-edge groups like Axel and his team at AIG, who value the insights that can be generated by up-to-date data and sophisticated analytics,” says David Wang, principal and consulting actuary at Milliman Inc. “Axel needs information and insights to drive decisions at AIG. Milliman and AIG have worked together on annuity industry studies that apply leading-edge practices in predictive analytics to uncover the drivers of customer behavior. Understanding customer behavior helps Axel and his team better manage risk and capital and influence new product development.”
Since his undergraduate work at Imperial College in London, Andre says he’s thrived in collaborative environments as a part of teams that feature varied skill sets, and he’s found that exact same setup in the financial sector.
“No one individual can get a job done alone,” he says. “It takes a team of people working together to accomplish great things.”
You can imagine even the non-physics-trained veterans on Wall Street would agree.