New IFoA president Matt Saker talks to Ruolin Wang about his career and how the actuarial profession can continue to flourish in the coming decades
Matt Saker knew he was embarking on a huge undertaking when he began work as the IFoA’s president-elect in March 2021 but, as he steps into the presidential role, he is now relishing the opportunity to work as part of the IFoA team to address the many challenges currently faced.
Although the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be behind us, the impact on actuarial work is still not fully understood, while the war in Ukraine and cost-of-living crisis have created an unprecedented list of tests for the new president.
“That’s all against the backdrop of climate change and trying to make our profession more diverse and inclusive,” he explains. “You throw that together, and it feels like the most challenging time of my career.”
The relentless advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning, increasing cyber threats, the ongoing social care crisis and widespread regulatory reform are just a few other issues currently facing the actuarial profession. Here, Saker explains how the IFoA will support its members during his one-year presidency and beyond, ensuring they are able to flourish during the most trying of times.
Rising to the top
With more than 30 years’ experience as an actuary, Saker has seen a remarkable change in the profession since graduating from the University of Warwick in 1989 and joining R Watson & Sons (now part of Willis Towers Watson) a year later. “When I started working as an actuary in Surrey in 1990, all the calculations were done on a mainframe that was housed in the basement,” he recalls. “The results from that mainframe were transposed by hand onto these big paper calculation sheets, which were then checked and signed off. That was a different world entirely. In the first few years of my career, spreadsheets started to become more common and people started to get PCs on their desk for the first time.”
The consulting firm had transformed into a very different organisation when he left 19 years later. “I really enjoyed my time as a consultant, but eventually I decided I wanted to get a taste of the corporate world. I had an offer from Aviva in 2009, so I decided to take the leap and joined as their European chief actuary, which I did for about three years before moving into the group chief actuary role in 2012,” he says. “My responsibilities included oversight of Aviva’s life and general insurance businesses and leading the actuarial community within Aviva, and more recently for things like embedding climate and sustainability risk into the group’s financial risk management framework.”
Although very engaged with the IFoA while studying for his actuarial exams, Saker admits that he went through a 20-year period where he was only loosely connected with it. Then, in 2016 – largely out of curiosity – he decided to re-engage with the IFoA to understand how it worked and served its members.
He put himself up for election to Council in 2016 and was elected, before being re-elected in 2019. “I didn’t really have any ambitions to be president at that time because I was still extremely busy at Aviva,” he says. “I decided in 2020 that, as I was enjoying my work with Council and various other
IFoA committees, I would take a step back from Aviva and switch my focus to the IFoA. As a result, I put myself up for election as president and was again fortunate enough to be chosen by Council.”
A new era
Saker says that demand for actuaries’ skills and services has increased massively since he first started out, with the profession significantly increasing in size. He believes this is largely thanks to technology. “It improved the efficiency of our processes and largely facilitated the growth of the profession. It’s meant that we can do more with less and focus on some of the more interesting aspects of our roles.”
He says that there has also been a big change in the position of actuaries within organisations, with far more scrutiny and challenge of their calculations. “When I entered the profession, actuarial work was a dark art, where we presented our results and they weren’t challenged at all. These days it’s very different. It’s our role to communicate and explain to other stakeholders, such as senior management and corporate or trustee boards, how we’ve reached our conclusions. That is a massive change. Communication skills are now hugely important, because if you don’t get the messaging right then you’ve failed to do your job.”
Societal challenges are also forcing the IFoA to speak up and ensure that the voices of the profession and its members are heard. However, he points out that the IFoA has successfully confronted such challenges in the past. “Issues like intergenerational fairness and The Great Risk Transfer are
topics we have been grappling with for several years. We’re now producing more thought leadership materials than we ever have done in the past, but it’s easier for that to get lost because there’s such a proliferation of information these days. We need to make sure that we are talking to the right stakeholders across regulators, employers and the government. It’s a much more crowded space than it was 30 years ago.”
“Making sure that the exams are accessible to everyone, both geographically and across the diversity spectrum, is hugely important”
Moving with the times
While the profession has experienced huge growth in recent decades, Saker believes that the drivers of this growth may not be the same in the future. On becoming IFoA president, he asked himself how he would feel starting out as an actuary today. “When I trained to be an actuary, you spent five or six years studying for exams in the knowledge that you then had a 30-year career ahead of you. That’s pretty much how it’s played out for me, and I’ve had a really rewarding, enjoyable career with no regrets. But I’m not sure that the mindset of new entrants to the profession is the same these days. I think they look at it and say, the world’s changing so quickly, by the time I’ve spent all that time qualifying, the roles that exist today might have changed, or perhaps not exist at all. In this context, we need to think carefully about what we are offering new entrants.”
Talk of the evolving nature of the profession is not new, but the pace of change has forced the IFoA to constantly evaluate the needs of members and employers as more non-traditional roles emerge. “We need to listen to all stakeholders and respond to their demands, and make sure we’re providing a good supply of the right type of actuaries in the future. No one, particularly Fellows, should be threatened by this. If we get it right, and I’m confident we will, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
The IFoA’s new banking qualification and climate and sustainability course are just a couple of examples of how it is looking to offer broader opportunities to members. Saker believes that, although insurance and pensions consulting will remain the strongholds of the profession for a while to come, climate change presents “a huge opportunity” for actuaries. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but the nature of the demand for actuaries will change gradually over time. The role of the IFoA is to stimulate the market for actuarial services, but not dictate the demand for those services or lower our standards. We can’t force our members to move into new areas, but we need to let them know that we are here for them and will support them when they do.”
A helping hand
He points to the growth of actuaries in general insurance as an example of how the IFoA can support members looking to broaden out. “There weren’t really any actuaries working in general insurance when I started, but a few pioneers saw an opportunity, moved in and exploited it. The IFoA was there to support them and others followed. These days there’s almost as many actuaries working in general insurance as there are in life insurance and pensions.”
However, he admits that members may have felt slightly detached from the IFoA over the years due to ineffective communication and a perception that it is too commercially driven. One of the three pillars of the IFoA’s strategy is to transform the membership experience, which has been seen through several recent initiatives. “With the New World New Thinking campaign launched last autumn, we announced that all online seminars would be free going forward. We’ve also published our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy, and more recently launched a new website. We are doing some really good stuff, but there’s still much more to do, and we need to continue moving the perceptions of our members in the right direction.”
Another pillar of the IFoA’s strategy is ‘fostering a vibrant, global community’. Currently, the majority of its Fellows are UK-based, but most students are non-UK based. Some have argued that the profession is inaccessible to people from certain countries because it’s difficult for them to get sponsorship for their exams and membership fees – an ongoing issue that the IFoA is looking to address. “Making sure that the exams are accessible to everyone, both geographically and across the diversity spectrum, is hugely important,” Saker says. “We are working on what we are calling a ‘sustainable membership model’ to make sure that we are providing the right services to each group, being clear on what these services are, and being very transparent about how we’re charging for them. If we decide that growing in certain markets is in the interests of the IFoA and its members, but if fees in those markets are less affordable than they are in the UK, then we need to be clear and transparent about this, explaining why cross-subsidies between different members is in the interest of everyone. We also need to be mindful of the risks inherent in our current membership model. For example, we should not be complacent about the phenomenally high renewal rate for IFoA membership.”
Unlike previous IFoA presidents, Saker has chosen not to adopt an overarching theme for his tenure, recognising that there is already a demanding list of priorities without him adding to it. However, a main area of focus will be continuing the culture change that has been driven by CEO Stephen Mann. “Many of our members feel that we don’t move quickly enough and that we’re not dynamic enough. These perceptions are important and need to be addressed. In reality there’s some brilliant work going on, we just haven’t been communicating it in the right way. Look at the way we moved exams online during the pandemic. Previously, that would’ve taken us years to do, but we delivered it quickly because it was a necessity. That is a great example of what I would call ruthless execution. We need more of this!”
Changing perceptions of actuaries will be another focus for Saker, who says that being unable to clearly articulate what he does has been “one of the biggest frustrations of my career”. “If you Google the definition of an actuary, what comes out is a narrow definition of someone who calculates premiums for an insurance company. We all know that that is wildly different from what actuaries do these days, so we need to be better at talking about what we do because the work of actuaries impacts so many people. With this in mind, I’m really keen to be as visible as possible and talk to all of our key stakeholders about what actuaries do and the value they can add.”
While what it means to be an actuary is evolving all the time, Saker believes that actuaries will increasingly be viewed as risk professionals in a wider context as their scope of influence continues to grow. “We have flourished over the last 30 years, and I’ve watched the profession go from strength to strength.
My desire is that, when I Iook back in 10 years’ time, that trend will have continued, and we will have continued to grow our membership, have our voices heard, and exerted influence on key societal issues.”