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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Interview: John Taylor

Incoming president John Taylor met with Francisco Sebastian to discuss his priorities for his term, the issues the profession faces, and how globalisation, technology and consumer education will be key themes on the agenda


John Taylor

The risks around investment and longevity are no longer residing with institutions. They haven’t gone away; they now rest with individuals

John Taylor has developed a well-rounded career in insurance and pensions, spanning both the private and public sectors. He started out in Edinburgh as a trainee actuary at Standard Life, doing finance-type work in asset liability management. His desire to be more involved with the front end of the business saw him move closer to sales, marketing and product development. This involved interacting with advisers and clients around company offerings, combining technical actuarial work with communication in a way that made sense to advisers, and he progressed up to executive level roles. Throughout his career, Taylor has been helping consumers to save money for retirement and then, at the point of retirement, giving them the means to access their money in the most effective way. 

Taylor was appointed as managing director of customer and proposition at NEST, the pensions automatic enrolment provider established by the UK government. More recently he became partner at consulting firm Hymans Robertson, where he advises providers of workplace pensions to ensure that defined contribution products achieve employees’ savings goals. 

Volunteering with the IFoA

Many actuaries get involved with the IFoA to broaden their horizons beyond their day-to-day jobs, while others bring the expertise they have developed throughout their careers. Taylor belongs to the latter group but wishes he had done more earlier in his career, “as the advantages are primarily in broadening horizons,” he says. “You get exposure to a much more diverse set of opinions and people than you do within your company, a much broader set of knowledge.” 

His experience as a volunteer began a decade ago, responding to a call from then-president Michael Pomery, who wanted help addressing the challenges entailed in the shift from defined benefit 
to defined contribution pensions. Taylor says that volunteering has provided him with excellent networking opportunities, and it’s no surprise that, not long afterwards, he seized the opportunity to further support the profession by becoming a member of Council. 

Taylor is pleased with the level of engagement the IFoA gets from volunteers – of the IFoA’s 30,000+ members, about 4,000 are currently active volunteers. “It is a very creditable degree of engagement from those individuals, bearing in mind that most members are busy studying or developing their careers.” 

Areas of opportunity

Taylor makes it clear that successful engagement from volunteers has not led to complacency. Council is “giving some thought to how we have traditionally organised ourselves and how we should be doing it in the future,” he says. “There are aspects of actuarial work that are very prominent and cut across practice areas. Environmental resources is a great example of that. It’s relevant to all practice areas, and we now have a board which gives that some focus.”

Other topics affecting multiple practice areas are data science and consumer finance management. Taylor shares an interest in these with many other actuaries, and has announced an initiative to help actuaries learn more about data science. While he doesn’t believe every actuary needs to become a data scientist, his view is that “we need to know the art of the possible, so that if there are advantages in using data science, we can be the ones that introduce it.”

Another area that can yield great opportunities for the actuarial profession is the international field. “I like travelling around, meeting members internationally and holding recognition events for volunteers. It’s great to see the engagement across the globe. It can be challenging for those members who are geographically remote from the practice boards. One of the things we’re trying to do is make sure that electronic and virtual engagement is stronger – practical things like making sure that meetings take place at a time that is accessible for people in other parts of the world.” The goal is to help members self-organise, so that if there are issues specific to certain geographies, actuaries can use the lessons from within their 
own communities. 

Current and emerging challenges

Taylor has an optimistic view of the actuary’s role. “The global actuarial profession and the IFoA are in a healthy position,” he says. “There’s a lot of demand for actuaries. I think the big challenge and opportunity is around technology. We are seeing disruption in the form of fintech, for example, as well as emerging new practice in the form of data science, and so the challenge for us is to stay up to speed with those developments.” In his view, technology is empowering actuaries to do more, give better advice and analyse things better. 

“One of our core competencies is appreciating the commercial value in data,” he goes on. “The fact that data now proliferates in many sectors could well provide the opportunity for the profession to extend beyond traditional fields. It is essential we keep pace with technology and data science. If we do that successfully, there will be many more opportunities.”

Another important challenge is to think about consumers. Advice on savings and retirement historically came from institutions, such as employers running defined benefit schemes and insurance companies running annuity books. However, in a world of defined contribution pensions, Taylor sees that “increasingly, individuals are having to save for themselves and manage their own investments and products. The risks around investment and longevity are no longer residing with institutions. They haven’t gone away; they now rest with individuals.” 

Taylor advocates for actuaries to “take all the expertise we’ve developed in managing those risks, but deliver them to a different audience; the individuals who are now shouldering these risks”. He pushes the importance of remaining relevant through product innovation, new communication methods or even promotion of regulatory change. “I think that shift from institutions to individuals needs a response from actuaries.”

Globalisation and diversity

In a globalised world, Taylor emphasises that actuaries must “as a profession, present a united front globally. There are many different actuarial or national organisations around the world that we have good working relationships with. I would like to think there’s more we can do together to collaborate in the greater interest of the profession by presenting a consistent message, and potentially even looking for areas of collaboration that would result in greater efficiencies.” Taylor is a great believer in the work that actuaries do internationally, but acknowledges the need for the IFoA to better communicate the benefits of that international work to all actuaries, in the UK and elsewhere. 

I press him further on the global expansion of the profession. “The number of IFoA members is growing, with about half outside of the UK. They are involved either as students or as fully or partly qualified actuaries. The profession is only going to become more diverse as time goes on, with a lot of growth in developing countries. We expect more demand for actuaries in the long term, so we have to be better at attracting and retaining individuals from more varied backgrounds. I’d like to see the profession have a more representative mix of gender and ethnicity.

“We’re trying to promote role models so that the next generation of actuaries can see people from their own background succeeding in the profession. We are becoming more aware of overseas members’ experiences by holding council meetings in places such as Hong Kong and Mumbai, so we can empathise better with them, and have also recently appointed our first Council member from India.”

Taylor also acknowledges the need to become better at communicating the benefits of that international work to all actuaries, whether that’s in the UK or elsewhere. “By growing our membership, we can achieve greater influence and economies of scale.”