Coles chairman Rick Allert wasn’t acting like a man with the world on his shoulders yesterday when he put in a good performance chairing the AXA Asia Pacific Holdings Ltd AGM in Melbourne.

It seems the emerging competitive auction for Coles has enormously relieved Allert who would ordinarily have faced directorial purgatory for backing his blundering CEO John Fletcher.

Unlike Southcorp, Allert’s other big gig over the years, AXA is undoubtedly a good news story – especially for the Paris-based insurance giant AXA SA which paid $1.5 billion for a 51% stake in 1995 that is now worth $7 billion.

Once Coles has been disposed of, AXA will be Allert’s last big corporate gig and despite serving on the board since 1995, the last six years as chairman, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast.

Despite upsetting the French by rejecting their $4.05 mop-up bid in August 2004, Allert claimed to have a terrific relationship with the CEO of the world’s second biggest insurer, Henri de Castries.

However, the French aren’t exactly treating the Aussies with great respect. Two of the three AXA representatives on the board quit yesterday, one having landed a new private equity gig in Japan and the other having been recalled from Asia to a head office job in Paris. At least they both turned up to the 90-minute AGM which included quite a bit of debate about the relationship between the two companies.

Deloitte was given the punt as auditor yesterday because Paris wanted to have the same auditor, PwC, looking after its global operations and the Australian subsidiary.

The original Ralph Willis conditions on the AXA sale have worked well. The deal with FIRB requires a clear majority of Australian directors, plus an Australian chairman. However, one of the supposedly independent Australians, former Freehills partner Paul Cooper, was the lawyer who acted for the French when they first took control.

I joked that the French directors and their old lawyer could team up to appoint Gabrielle Gate as the next “independent” chairman of the Australian offshoot, but Allert laughed this off pointing out he was only 64. There’s no other prominent professional director type on the board so it will be interesting to see who eventually gets the gig.

The French also committed to expand into Asia through its Australian arm. Shareholders yesterday approved the $311 purchase of Winterthur Hong Kong from the French parent and this only happened to satisfy the Ralph Willis conditions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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