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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Working overseas: Hong Kong - Mark Stamper

Name:
Mark Stamper, Regional chief risk officer and chief life actuary

Employer:
AXA Asia

Field of work:
Risk management, product pricing, valuation, analysis & modeling

Overseas country and city/town that you are based in:
Hong Kong

Number of years spent working overseas:
8

Explain what motivated you to seek employment overseas.
I had a very enjoyable, challenging and rewarding job in London, plus good friends and interests, but having lived in South Africa for 6 years when I was growing up, I had an urge to again experience living in a different part of the world. Living and working in a different community and culture is something that can enrich your life, far beyond any experience you can get from just visiting when on holiday.

How did you find the role you are doing?
Initially I moved to Hong Kong with my then company, Swiss Re, who were good about promoting overseas opportunities and making them happen. After a couple of years the move to AXA happened through old-fashioned networking; I had got to know some of the senior AXA team socially, so heard about an interesting opening and took it from there. AXA’s strategy and vision, for the region and wider too, was very appealing and exciting, and remains so 6 years later.

What attracted you to Hong Kong?
I had never been to this part of the world before, so I was guaranteed a new experience. The potential in Hong Kong and Asia was of course huge, so I thought that would bring opportunities, but mainly it was to see different parts of the world – China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, all places I had never been to before. I was moving with my wife, and when she persuaded her UK company to open an office in Hong Kong, and that she was the best candidate to run it for them too, it looked like a great opportunity for both of us.

We had 3 days in Hong Kong before finalising the move, and even in those few days we were blown away by the variety and vibrancy of Hong Kong, so it was a very easy decision to make.

What were the main challenges you faced when moving overseas?
Knowing when to apply my UK experience and knowledge, and when to accept that the market was different and the rules and norms I had learnt and taken for granted weren’t necessarily relevant. Balancing the knowledge and skills I had versus accepting when I had gaps in my knowledge was at times quite tricky (it is very easy to find yourself saying “when I was in the UK...”, but of course that can be very annoying for a local team if they are thinking “yes but it doesn’t work like that here...”).

What are the main differences you have found to working overseas compared to working in the UK
In Hong Kong there is certainly a long hours culture, but it is a small place and so my commute is far shorter – the net result is fine and allows a full life outside of work too, of course with peaks and troughs. The main difference I feel, and especially now, is that the growth and opportunity in Asia is so much bigger than in Europe. We are looking to double in size every 3 or 4 years through organic growth, so when you add in inorganic opportunities too it can be exponential. What this means is that as a risk or finance professional, you are constantly juggling risk versus reward, trying to ensure you don’t hold back that growth but rather ensure it is profitable and sustainable.

That is very challenging but massively interesting, as you are looking outwards at growth and opportunity, new products, new distributors, new partners, new business models, but of course inwards looking too to understand whether it makes sense, how do we grow at 50% in market X but still maintain sound operational controls and practices? And this is while still being a European insurer and hence subject to Solvency II, dealing with different market dynamics, different local regulations in each country across Asia, businesses at different stages of development, different levels of management depth and capability. There is never a dull moment.

What is the most topical industry issue facing actuaries in Hong Kong?
Probably similar to European insurers, but with a different spin – Solvency II and enterprise risk management. It is generating a lot of interest from local regulators too, so regulatory change is the norm for the foreseeable future. The different spin is that not all of the competitors are subject to Solvency II, and many see the world through different, non-market consistent, non-economic capital eyes. So the playing field is uneven and how do we implement Solvency II, a challenge in itself, and manage the business using market consistent metrics, but with the twist of still remaining competitive and growing at 20, 30, 40%+ each year?

What is the best thing about where you work?
The drive and energy of the people – there is a huge ambition and willingness to get the job done. The people are young, smart and eager to learn too, so as a manager you can never rest on your laurels but need to ensure there is opportunity for your team to develop.

And the worst?
As a manager, you can never rest on your laurels! There probably aren’t enough hours in the day, and there is always a new opportunity, issue, problem or challenge. This is of course what makes this part of the world so interesting and rewarding too, but from time to time it can be tiring. Luckily, a long weekend might be to a glorious beach in Thailand or the Philippines, so it is quite easy to recover too.

Give an unusual fact about the country in which you work.
Hong Kong has the most skyscrapers of any city in the world, yet despite that about three quarters of Hong Kong is countryside. So you are never far from a good hike, or a run up and down the dramatic hills if you are more energetic.

What are the key attributes an actuary or actuarial student would need to work in Hong Kong?
Flexibility and pragmatism. The regulatory and competitive environment is changing, while we are looking to grow fast too, so you need to be able to adapt your technical skills to those challenges, and make sensible decisions given the time and resource constraints.

Do you have any advice to others looking for overseas work?
If it is to Asia, don’t be too fixated on the initial role. There are many opportunities when you are here, and it is rare for someone to be doing the same thing for too long, so don’t be afraid to take a chance on something that doesn’t look like your ideal role. The overall experience of living and working somewhere else is more than worth small compromises in your day-to-day role, and there are always other opportunities around the corner.

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Further reading: Working Overseas

This special supplement looks at career opportunities for actuaries around the world, and how to plan for a move abroad

Features
Emmanuel Kenning - Global trends and opportunities
Trevor Watkins - Actuarial qualifications
Hannah Kaye - Actuarial skills travel well
Andrew Smith - Lecturing in Armenia and Albania

Region focus
Mark Dainty - United Kingdom
Jan Sparks - Europe
Wilhelm de Wet - South Africa
Luke Hawkins - Asia

Case studies
Switzerland - Alex Summers
Spain - Carl Haughton
South Africa - Bjorn Landewig
South Africa - Ashlin Noonan
Nigeria - Alexandre Aquereburu
Hong Kong - Paul Murray
Hong Kong - Mark Stamper
Indonesia - Chris Lossin
Bermuda - Amy Guna
Australia - Matt Noyce
Australia - Ashley Palmer