Q: How did someone trained as a civil engineer become a principal and pension actuary at Milliman?
I went to the University of Delaware and earned a bachelor's and master’s degree in civil engineering. After working in the field for a few years, I decided it wasn't what I wanted to do every day for the next 30 or 40 years. I had a college friend whose wife was an actuary and she recommended that I try taking the actuarial exams to see if my math skills were up to snuff.
Q: And were they?
In one sense math is math, and the foundation I had already built just needed to be applied in a different pursuit. So from that perspective the transition was not that difficult; the bigger challenge over time was learning the specific rules of the actuarial field. When you're working in engineering you're dealing with physical law and man’s law. Gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared. That doesn't change and you can't legislate it away. But you can change a building code that specifies the factor of safety necessary in the design of a beam. Similarly, in the financial world, there are universalities such as compound interest that man cannot change, but pension funding regulations are written by people, and you have to learn those rules to be effective in this job. And the rules certainly do change!
Q: And how did that first actuarial exam go?
The first one was fine, the second one was a little harder, and by the time I realized what I had gotten into, they got really hard. It took me six years to attain fellowship and my Enrolled Actuary designation. I’d characterize the fellowship process as a PhD-level effort.
Q: How did you come to Milliman?
It was serendipity. The Philadelphia Employee Benefits practice was looking for someone at my experience level at the same time that I was beginning to look around. Also, it didn't hurt that the office was three miles from my house! I met with the staff here—I spent a day interviewing with four or five people—and at the end of the day I thought, I’m not going to look anywhere else. This is it."
Q: Did you know much about Milliman before that interview?
I didn't know anything specific about Milliman. I learned that at the interview. The main thing I was surprised by was its unique structure. It’s vastly different from what I experienced in my prior actuarial employment, and it's quite attractive. The staff here went to great lengths to point out to me how Milliman operates and why that would be attractive to someone with an entrepreneurial bent, to someone who is willing to take some risk in exchange for the potential reward. The difference between Milliman and, for instance, our publicly held competitors, is that we don't answer to our shareholders; we answer only to ourselves. We have a lot of freedom to pursue what we wish to pursue, and should we be successful, the rewards are very direct and very measurable. Milliman’s structure is the reason why I tell recruiters when they call today, "I can't imagine what you could possibly do for me to make me ever want to leave here." That usually gets them off the phone relatively quickly.
Q: We’ve heard that there's a lot of emphasis on independence and personal responsibility when you work at Milliman. Did that start as soon as you joined?
When I started, Milliman had just landed a significant new project. The consultant who was in charge was going on leave because his first child had just been born. So he said, "Here, welcome, figure this out. I'll be back in three weeks." And that was how I learned. The practice leader told me his desire had always been to find talented people who wanted to consult, and then he wanted to get out of their way and let them do that. That was his method of managing the practice, and it's now mine as well. I have little interest, and little need, to pressure people to do something they don't want to do. It's clear that the people who are interested in succeeding will put in the effort.
Q: What do you think are the characteristics of a successful Milliman employee?
In consulting, you have to recognize and remember that your goal is not to demonstrate your intelligence, your goal is to help your clients solve problems. That's a skill that doesn't necessarily get taught in the exam process. An early mentor once told me, “You think you are smart if you can write a five-page letter. Your client thinks you are smart if you can write a one-page letter.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your office and the people who work there?
There’s just under a hundred people all told in the Philadelphia office. Of the consultants I interviewed with, it was striking that the three who were similar to me in age and experience level all started at Milliman out of college or even as interns, and they’d been here ever since. When I talk to my younger staff today I can honestly recommend to them, "There's really no need for you to look around because it doesn't get any better."
Q: What about work/life balance at Milliman?
I am infinitely more concerned about the results of my staff serving our clients well as opposed to the process. Milliman employees need to be responsible, know what to do, and then do it. It's pretty much as simple as that.
One of my colleagues reduced her hours after starting a family. She works from home mostly, but with modern technology the distance is easily bridged. Some senior colleagues have phased down their hours, too. In this profession, there's no on/off switch. You can make the contribution you want to make, and phase down as gradually as you like. You benefit from this freedom, and the practice benefits as you train the next generation.
Training and career development are things we really focus on. For example, with our junior consultants we set specific professional growth goals each year, such as higher-level assignments, management of newer staff, and continual increases in client-facing responsibility. Each year we have an in-depth review that focuses on "What are you going to accomplish next year? What are you going to accomplish the year after that?" I know that, of course, they get calls from recruiters, but if we've done our job right, they'll give the same reply I do.
Q: What’s unique about the way that Milliman helps clients address the issues concerning pension plans?
As a firm, we're in a very interesting position. Milliman is the largest independent actuarial firm. With size, we have the ability to sponsor resources such as our Washington, D.C., Employee Benefits Research Group that keeps us on top of breaking events, and our Systems and Programming Group that does a great job developing and maintaining the software we use each day. The concept of independence flows through the firm. One great aspect is that we don't have top-down mandates in terms of selling a client a certain tool or procedure. We have the freedom to consult to our clients as we see best, and by that I mean we strive to understand a client's issues, and then use our resources to provide information and develop specific tools for them that they can use to make management decisions.
Q: What advice would you give to a new employee at Milliman?
Milliman is a true meritocracy. As you meet with success, the whole pie grows—so I’m not going to stand in your way if you want to chase down a great idea and try to do something new and interesting for our clients. Here, you have the freedom to do your best work.