The day National Mutual went French

January 29, 2008

AGMs are not usually the venue for big announcement but National's Mutual's on January 31, 1995, was the day they revealed the French were taking over. This Robert Turner Insider item is from the Herald Sun.

THE food on offer at the end of the National Mutual policyholders meeting said it all.

"Let them eat cake," was the subliminal message from the new Franco-Australian allegiance that will shortly be known as National Mutual Holdings. And what good cake it was, too.

The choux pastry with its vacuum centre filled with fresh, whipped cream, the praline just the right combination of finely crushed nuts and caramelised sugar, and the fruit tarts with their shiny glaze typified the gloss policyholders will soon receive from the old National Mutual Life Association of Australasia to convince them to vote overwhelmingly for their new French master, AXA.

The meeting in the Bellarine Room of the World Trade Centre was packed with expectant policyholders.

For more than a year they had been hearing that National Mutual had to take the next step to remain a viable financial institution.

Who would be the new partner? The press had been on the scent, or perfume, of Axa for some time, and had been saying so.

There was no cries of "sacre bleu!" from the crowd when chairman Athol Lapthorne made the announcement.

In fact, most policyholders seemed to be from about three groups - NatMut staff, life insurance agents and proxies from the Australian Shareholders Association.

Questions from the floor ranged from the obsequious to the obscure.

One old National Mutual face, "Bails" Myer, introduced himself as a policyholder and former chairman. "Glad you got it around the right way," current chairman Lapthorne said.

Myer took the microphone and said he was "personally thrilled" by the partnership, as it was a "far-ranging, far-reaching" decision worthy of his "warm congratulations".

But one former agent cautioned against jumping into bed with the French.

"Easy to get into a marriage, but just as hard to get out of one," he said, and then aired the view that if European Union ends before its starts, would National Mutual be able to abandon its union with an unwanted partner.

Lapthorne got all philosophical, outlining how hard it was to predict the future and foresee those sorts of things.

"But they are French and they have a different outlook," said the agent, who must have come up against Parisian arrogance on his tour of Europe one year.

Over laughter from the crowd, Lapthorne retorted: "The people laughing are the ones who have been in negotiations with the French and they understand your viewpoint."

After the patisseries on offer, if the French viewpoint on finance is as thoroughly devised as its viewpoint on the cakes, NatMut's policyholders-cum-shareholders can look forward to a rich future.