Colin Wilson, new president of the IFoA, talks to Richard Purcell and Stephen Hyams about his varied career, becoming president and the importance of thought leadership
We meet Colin Wilson at the London offices of the IFoA in the run up to his term as president. Friendly and assured, he describes how his actuarial career had an unconventional start. Armed with a maths degree from Cambridge University, he initially spent 10 years in operational research within the defence industry. He summarises his change of career succinctly: "It was the time of the so-called 'peace dividend', when people thought the defence industry was going into a decline." It seemed the right time for him to move on to life as an actuary. A decision, he says, he has never regretted.
After joining Prudential, initially on the life insurance side, he moved to risk consulting at Barrie & Hibbert before joining the Government Actuary's Department seven years ago, where he now resides as the deputy government actuary. Looking back, Wilson says: "It is fair to say I have had a varied career, which has been great fun." This leads us neatly on to our first topic of conversation - wider fields. He firmly believes: "We are better at moving into non-traditional roles than a lot of people think. What brings this home to me is the number of people who start their conversation by saying 'I am not a typical actuary'. To some extent, it reinforces the stereotype of someone working in traditional fields. I think there are far more people working outside these areas and being more innovative than that would imply.
If I could, I would ban the phrase 'I am not a typical actuary'," he says. Referring to the IFoA's vision, he continues: "It does not say the work of actuaries has to be insurance, pensions, investments or health and care."
When it comes to driving greater activity in non-traditional areas, Wilson believes that we have to be prepared to move out of our comfort zones, asserting: "I am a strong believer in the portability of the actuarial skill set."
In addressing some of the potential barriers to this, we begin with regulation. Wilson agrees that "it provides a greater overhead", admitting: "There are some things it will not be worth employing an actuary to do, because actuaries are highly skilled, and highly paid. Clearly, the upside of regulation is the quality and reassurance that goes with it, and the value that brings."
He continues: "It is undoubtedly true that actuaries may need to take a pay cut when moving into other areas," noting his own experience of taking a 50% pay cut when he made the move to begin his actuarial career.
"It is a reason why it's easier for younger members of the profession to think about these things than those already well-established in their careers. I see the younger members of the profession as key resources that we have in achieving a broader spread more generally." He firmly believes: "If you have the right sort of consulting mindset and say 'what I am really here to do is to add value through advice based on judgment', you can apply what you already know in other areas quite readily without losing too much of the value in the process. In practice, I don't think the hurdles are big, albeit there may be a short-term step back for some individuals.
On a net present value basis, it should be a net gain. So my advice is take the long view - that's what we, as actuaries, should be doing."
Route to the top
On his route to becoming president, Wilson explains he has long been active in the profession, "immediately on qualifying, my boss at the time suggested I might like to join the Investment Committee". Personally, he has thoroughly enjoyed the experience of volunteering and found it helpful in his career. "That is why I have continued to do it," he says.
As president-elect, he explains: "You join a presidential team of three and, together with Derek Cribb, the chief executive, it forms the leadership team of the profession. You spend one year each as president-elect, president and immediate past president. The international links are also on a three-yearly basis, so I cover China and South-East Asia, which I have been doing since becoming president-elect and will continue for a further two years, so that gives you time to build up some relationships and actually get to know the people abroad, and for them to know you."
With the presidency come additional responsibilities, such as chairing Council, and the opportunity to set the agenda through the presidential theme. For Wilson, his interest in research meant that the theme of 'thought leadership' was a natural one. He believes it is closely linked with one of our core values - progress.
Under this theme, Wilson sets out three objectives: "First, to be seen as a dynamic and forward-looking profession, so people can see actuaries have something exciting about them. Next is for people to be demonstrably talking about ideas that have come from within the profession. The third stage is when they proactively come to us saying: 'we know you can help because of your forward-looking thinking'."
A key part of the thought leadership theme is the expansion of the Actuarial Research Centre (ARC). Wilson's ambitions are clear:
"We have made the decision to increase the amount of money and resource to support academic research and the collaboration between academia and industry. It is very much a recognition of harnessing the global academic research community for our benefit. Not only is there expertise around the globe but also different issues, and perspectives on issues, and this helps us to make a bigger difference."
He explains: "The ARC research material tends to deal with bigger topics that take longer to look at compared with those the working parties would typically work on," he says. "Within ARC there are three programmes we are funding over the next four to five years that have been announced (p18). Besides ARC, there are also very important roles for the Research and Thought Leadership Committee, which has helped get the expanded ARC going and oversees the coordination of member-led research, such as working parties."
For Wilson it is not about "the man in the street knowing what an actuary does" but about policymakers and industry leaders having awareness. He admits:
"A lot of them don't even know about actuaries, which is more worrying. MPs are a group where we have made some progress but it doesn't seem to last very long.
So we need to work a lot harder to get better known, and this is something the Policy and Public Affairs Committee is focused on."
Previous presidential themes of 'diversity' and 'promote' are still on the agenda. Wilson is adamant that none of these themes are isolated and they are important to continue.
"The previous themes won't get thrown away when we start to focus on thought leadership, but we will be thinking about things in a slightly different context."
On Fiona Morrison's theme of 'promote', Wilson says: "It is not about looking at things like research internally, it has to be out there to make it work for us. A theme like that gives you a focus."
And when it comes to diversity: "We have recently published a diversity strategy for the profession, in the first instance focusing on gender diversity but looking at other aspects as well. We have done well in recent years. The Council is more diverse than ever; a third are women, and we have five members from China and Hong Kong and one from Africa. So we have got a broad Council, which I think is definitely beneficial."
A global role
While there is greater international diversity on Council, it is worth asking what impact he thinks the IFoA is having outside the UK.
"I would start by saying that when I go overseas I get a real sense of excitement about what's going on in Asia and the Far East. Also, what the IFoA is doing in showing leadership within the global actuarial profession is really valued and appreciated.
"We are helping from the professional perspective with new qualifications, such as the Certified Actuarial Analyst. We have now had two annual conferences in Asia, collaborating at a multinational and a multidisciplinary level, and those are really valued."
We move on to the global opportunities for actuaries more generally. Wilson believes:
"So much of what really troubles people today is around long-term financial issues - climate change and ageing populations being obvious examples. The work the IFoA is doing has been done for the actuarial profession as a whole, and that is why our global leadership is really valued." He sees opportunities to work with other actuarial bodies in other regions as key.
"We are confident of getting funding from other actuarial professions for our research. Equally, we are in competition with some of them, such as the Society of Actuaries in the US, for members doing our exams in Asia. The Australians are also active in the region, along with local bodies. It does become quite a global community, and it is very exciting to be part of it."
Growing roots and wings
The conversation turns to education strategy, which is important not only in competing internationally as a professional body but also in supporting the next generation as they spread into wider fields. Wilson confirms there is a lot going on, with a review of the education strategy, as well as a strategic evaluation of the profession as a whole.
"It is very important that we focus on giving people a core skill set that they can apply to lots of different things. We still need the depth of people focusing on insurance or pensions, but that is not necessary to teach all actuaries. The most important thing you can do when bringing up your children is to give them roots and wings. In this context what we are trying to do is ground our actuaries in a core skill set to give them roots, but then the wings to work much more broadly and flexibly. That's what the education strategy is looking to do, even if it has not been articulated in that way."
We end by asking Wilson what success looks like for him. "I would like to see that we have made progress on each of the three objectives I talked about. The strategy refresh recently published concerns the long-term sustainability of the profession, and there is a challenge to get everyone to share that vision and for people to buy into it. The more people we have, the more we can mobilise and be more successful."