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Desmond Smith Q&A: Duty calls

Sarah Bennett in conversation with Desmond Smith, immediate past-president of the International Actuarial Association

05 MAR 2013 | SARAH BENNETT


Desmond Smith

Desmond Smith was elected as the first South African president of the International Actuarial Association (IAA) in January 2012 and, following a one-year tenure, has now automatically commenced his duties as the immediate past-president. In this interview, he reflects upon his time as president, and discusses, among other things, global challenges facing the profession, the IAA’s response, and the rainbow nation dream.

I believe I have a duty to help build the profession for future generations. Equally, I believe I have a broader duty to society to make it a better place

He was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on 21 June 1947. He obtained his BSc degree (cum laude) at the University of Stellenbosch. In 1973, he qualified as a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries (London) and, in 1992, he completed an international senior management programme at Harvard Business School. He is chairman of RGA (South Africa) and of financial services group Sanlam. He also holds several company directorships.


Your role as IAA president must involve a substantial amount of travel?

I have travelled quite a bit over the past year. The IAA has council and committee meetings twice a year, which we try to schedule to coincide with invitations to special events from our member associations. During 2012 we met in Los Angeles and then in Nassau in the Bahamas, which coincided with the annual convention of the Caribbean Actuarial Association, providing an opportunity to rub shoulders with actuaries from all over the world. The first meetings of 2013 will be held in The Hague to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the IAA’s association with the Dutch. I have also attended events in Kenya, India, Turkey and Hong Kong. In June, I was fortunate to be invited to a meeting of the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) in the Cayman Islands to sign a memorandum of understanding between the IAA and the IAIS.


How did you get involved in the IAA?

It was a natural development really. I had involved myself in the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) as early as 1974, having qualified as an FIA in 1973. I became president of ASSA in 1996 and thought I had done my bit. I happened to be the ASSA representative when it was decided to reconstitute the IAA into its current form. When ASSA put forward a pitch to host the 2010 International Congress of Actuaries, I was ‘recycled’ and asked to chair the bid committee and, ultimately, the organising committee. And so my interest in the IAA was renewed. It was somewhat of a shock when I was approached to make myself available to become president – I believe my initial response was “You cannot be serious!”


What is the greatest challenge facing the actuarial profession globally?

Clearly, there are many challenges facing the profession, and the IAA has a number of strategic objectives to address these. The first is to ‘identify, establish and maintain relationships with key supranational audiences and provide them with actuarial input to improve the soundness of decisions being made on important issues with a global impact’. This summarises our response to what is a very significant challenge for the profession– to remain relevant and establish ourselves as a necessary resource that is regarded as essential in debating global issues and formulating policy in the financial field.


What one skill would you say actuaries need to compete successfully in an increasingly global and mobile jobs market?

An actuary would, by definition, have the necessary technical skills and know-how. I believe it is also essential to have good interpersonal and communication skills to be successful in business or any other career. Even if these do not come naturally, they can be acquired. I have spent hours in front of TV cameras with a very critical coach learning presentation skills. A consultation with an image consultant to coordinate a ‘business wardrobe’ was, regrettably, the beginning of a love of clothes and shopping!


How has your experience in insurance and reinsurance influenced your view of the profession?

I can honestly say that I am invariably impressed by colleagues that I interact with – their integrity, professionalism, commitment and, in particular, their ability to identify and analyse the relevant issues in a given situation and come up with solutions. Becoming involved in industries and areas of activity beyond the traditional roles that actuaries are associated with has made me more aware of the value the profession has to add. A good example is enterprise risk management, where I believe we will play a significant role in future. The message to actuaries is that there are huge opportunities out there.


What is your attitude towards service to the profession?

When I qualified as an FIA I was fortunate to receive my certificate at Staple Inn. The theme of the address on that occasion was the famous quote from Sir Francis Bacon: “I hold every man a debtor unto his profession …” I believe this quote is also in the renowned stained glass at Staple Inn. This made an enormous impact on me. Also, growing up and living in South Africa, where for decades many of my fellow South Africans did not have the opportunities I have had, I soon realised how privileged I was. I believe that I have a duty to the profession, which has opened doors in life for me, to help build it for future generations. Equally, I believe that I have a broader duty to society to make it a better place for all South Africans and, in particular, for younger and future generations.


What was your first job?

I joined Sanlam in 1968 after completing a BSc at Stellenbosch University. This was before computers had taken the ‘schlep’ out of actuarial work. So I spent close to a year calculating surrender and paid up values – not very inspiring!


What does inspire you?

I am inspired by seeing people achieve and realise their potential. I am also inspired by what we have achieved as a South African nation. I am, however, acutely aware that we cannot drop the ball at this stage. We have an obligation to continue to strive to achieve the dream of the rainbow nation!


How do you organise your time to be effective in all your roles?

I am fortunate that I am semi-retired, although my wife may not agree! I retired from executive management in 2005 and have since been involved in a number of boards as a non-executive.


How do you spend your leisure time?

I am somewhat of a sport fanatic. I must confess that I am a Liverpool supporter, which has not been easy of late! I have played golf for going on 60 years, but, while I used to be able to hold my own, age eventually takes its toll!


Have you lived or worked outside South Africa?

My wife and I lived in the UK for just under a year in 1972/73, when I was given a sabbatical by my employer, Sanlam, to study full time and complete my fellowship. We then did what so many folk from the ‘colonies’ did in those days – bought a car and a tent and toured round the UK and Europe for some nine months.


What are the most important things you have learnt since receiving your FIA certificate at Staple Inn almost 40 years ago?

Humility. Whenever one takes oneself too seriously and tends towards arrogance and cockiness, something will come along to remind you of who and what you really are! Also the fact that we have a duty to leave the world a better place when we pass on.


Can you offer any advice to people entering the profession?

The same as I gave to some high school students I met last year: “You will be entering a profession with a proud and distinguished past and it will be your responsibility to ensure that its future remains that way. You will be opening doors for yourself that you never dreamt of, and gaining access to wonderful opportunities. I am sure you have the ability to qualify as a fellow, but it will take hard work and dedication to do so. If you feel you are up to it, welcome!”

For more on the IAA, see Spotlight

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