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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Q&A: Richard Willetts

As a child, what were your ambitions for the future?
To play football for England and win the World Cup. I’m beginning to think time might be running out for me.

What motivated you to pursue a career in longevity?
I found it an incredibly interesting and important topic, with the major advantage that hardly any relevant research had been published by UK actuaries for years. So there wasn’t much competition!

How do you measure your success?
That’s a really difficult question to answer without sounding vain!

If you could revisit your life choices, would you do anything differently?
I’d do some things very differently, most things a little differently and a few things exactly the same.

What would you consider as an alternative career?
Professional footballer (obviously). Or indeed a professional in pretty much any other sport. Only complete lack of talent is holding me back.

What is the greatest risk you have taken (either personal or professional)?
Probably deciding to quit my job pretty much on the spur of the moment and set-up my own consultancy business.

What is your favourite pastime?
Wishing I had time for a pastime.

How have you found the move from large company to one-man consultancy to monoline insurer?
They all have their advantages. In a monoline insurer you get to work with celebrity non-execs, in a one-man consultancy you can go to work in your pyjamas and in a large company you get a canteen.

What were your reasons for making the switch from self-employment back into working for a large insurer?
Realising that I hadn’t left the house, or made any phone calls, for three days I began to realise that being one-man consultancy could be a bit introspective. When the Paternoster opportunity came along, I thought helping to set up a insurance company might be an exciting and challenging experience. I certainly wasn’t wrong.

Do you think swine flu will have a long lasting impact on longevity?
I suspect it’s likely to be relatively long-lasting, although (hopefully) not particularly severe compared to other pandemics.

The CMI Mortality Projection Model Working Party, of which you are the chair, recently published a new mortality projection model. How big a change is this from the “cohort” projection model and how quickly do you think companies should move to the new model?
The new model better reflects the most recent trends. It is also structured so that regular updates should be relatively straightforward. However, most importantly, by making the long-run rate of improvement fundamental to the model’s structure and description I’m hoping it will facilitate more informed debate among users of actuarial assumptions, e.g. pension scheme trustees and insurance company directors.

Historically the profession has tended to underestimate mortality improvements. With this in mind do you think someone (BAS, PPF, the Institute/Faculty) should specify a minimum recommended “improvement” basis?
I think that would probably be overly prescriptive.

Were there any disagreements in the working party over what methodology to adopt?
We certainly had robust and lengthy discussions. In fact, very lengthy. Our meetings would often last for 4-5 hours. Which, to be fair, may say more about my ability as a chairman than anything else.

Finally, what would be your advice to a student starting out on the path to qualification?
Consider becoming a parent half-way through. I passed all the exams I sat after my daughter was born.

Richard Willets is the chair of the CMI working party which developed the new projections model and Longevity Director for Paternoster