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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Trailblazer - Chris Waites

What motivated you to pursue an actuarial career and what contributed to your decision to become an actuary?
I did a holiday job with Bacon & Woodrow after the end of my second year at university. I liked the work once described to me by a fellow actuarial student as ‘like being paid for solving crossword puzzles’. I also liked the people. The feeling must have been mutual, as they offered me a permanent job the following summer, which I later accepted.
Has the profession changed much since you first came aboard?
Massively. My starting salary was £1,000 a year! Computers have enabled us to undertake sophisticated forms of analysis that we wouldn’t even have dreamt of in the 1960’s, while reducing enormously the numbers of people doing semi-routine number-crunching, and the time spent checking their work. Other major changes have been our growing involvement in general insurance, our beginning to engage with the challenges of financial economics, and the demise of ‘traditional’ actuarial judgement.
Are you proud of your profession?
Do you feel your background as an actuary has positively impacted your career?
Yes again. I have always believed that the training, the emphasis on and understanding of risk, and the natural tendency to see financial problems as revolving around cashflows, have helped me in a variety of different ways. However, I was turned down for one senior commercial director job in Unilever because ‘he looks too young and isn’t even an accountant’.
You spent some time working as commercial director for a large multinational. What excites or intrigues you most about the business world and how can actuaries make their mark outside the traditional fields?
I qualified at Unilever working in pensions, but a few years after qualifying, moved into more general and financial management, where I spent the next ten years or so of my career. My last job was as commercial director with their international flavours and fragrances business. It is an unfashionable view these days, but I still believe there is an importance and value attaching to manufacturing that does not apply to the financial sector. It was a period of considerable personal satisfaction and great challenge, not least because I was confronted by so many problems to which there were rarely clear ‘right’ answers.
You came back into the profession, initially in a management role. How did it differ from your experience in industry?
I left Unilever to become Bacon & Woodrow’s first managing partner. The most striking differences were the dearth of formal systems and hierarchical structures. Whoever coined the phrase ‘herding cats’ to describe the task of managing in a professional services firm had it about right.
You have been involved in some very interesting projects including carrying out a risk assessment for the Millenium Dome. What advice do you have for other actuaries trying to break into wider fields?
Don’t get bogged down in the silo mentality we are far too accepting of branding as pensions, life, general insurance, or investment actuaries. And learn how to work better alongside other professionals.
Of your many career accomplishments, what do you consider the most satisfying?
My work on the private finance initiative. A degree of cynicism is appropriate when examining the attractions of PFI to politicians. Nevertheless, it has helped to address one of the major challenges facing UK plc, namely the systematic and endemic underinvestment in our infrastructure. This problem arose over decades. At its root was the tendency to postpone extremely worthwhile capital projects, because it was always easier to cut capital rather than revenue expenditure. The problem became even more acute with the abandonment of ‘tax and spend’ from the political agenda.
For a period of my career, I became very involved in PFI. I have worked on projects involving roads, schools, hospitals, prisons, and IT systems, been an advisor to the National Audit Office, contributed articles, and spoken widely at conferences. I hope and believe that many PFI transactions will have been better structured as a result.
How do you personally measure success?
I am not sure I have ever tried to measure success, but if I did, it would be about more than my career. It would certainly include having left a mark somewhere on something. In terms of what I do currently, it is those moments when you see a light come on inside a student’s head, often accompanied by a remark along the lines of ‘now I see how that works’.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in business?
If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know whether you’ve got there.
What do you do to relax?
I play tennis and golf, and at a more sedentary level, bridge and chess. I also like going to the theatre. I used to play cricket, but these days watch I’ve been an MCC member for many years. I probably watch far too much TV all main-line sports, but in addition don’t think I’ve ever missed an episode of either ER or The Sopranos. Sad really. I thought about mentioning my four children but, although I am very proud of them, they have rarely been relaxing.
You now teach maths to A-level students. What do you think inspires young mathematicians today and how can the profession ensure we recruit the most talented ones?
I have been teaching at Mander Portman & Woodward, a sixth-form college in Cambridge, since my ‘retirement’ in 2004, and am thoroughly enjoying it. My degree was actually in economics after doing part 1 maths, but I think I would find teaching economics a considerable challenge.
The sources of inspiration for maths students are I think much the same as ever problem-solving, the mastery of new skills, the occasional quantum leaps in understanding, the appreciation of the elegance of certain solutions, etc. And as someone pointed out to me the other evening, the fact that those with A-level maths earn on average more than those with any other A-level.
The profession’s recruitment effort is, I think, generally best directed at university level rather than A-level. However, the sponsorship by the profession of the UK Senior Maths Challenge, in which my students at MPW participate, raises awareness and seems to me to be well worthwhile.
How do you feel about the future for the profession?
A little uncertain. I think we are at something of a crossroads. The savings industry which has kept so many of us occupied throughout my career appears to be going through fundamental changes which will dramatically reduce the demand for actuarial services. General insurance, in which I worked for the last few years of my career, is a notable exception.
On the other hand, there is a massive opportunity in the field of financial risk management associated with the rapidly changing nature of financial markets. An ever increasing number of the brightest maths graduates are becoming risk analysts a discipline which I think fits naturally with actuarial work. I welcome the efforts of the profession to take this on board, but there is much to do and time is short.