Q: Could you talk a little bit about how actuaries and non-actuaries work together in your practice?
Historically, Milliman has been primarily an actuarial firm with regional offices that grew from that actuarial base. When Milliman got into defined benefit and defined contribution administration, it required more processing in addition to retirement consulting. This opened the door for people who knew how to manage processes and people.
We've now got regional processing centers. Some of the processing groups are strictly in defined benefit (DB) plans and work very closely with the actuaries. We have to work shoulder to shoulder and we had to learn some common language to make that successful. We've created processes in which it's almost as if our DB administrators are actuarial students, in that they're creating work that will ultimately be reviewed by actuaries. The actuaries perform peer review for calculations, valuation files, and other complex work. They are also active in new plan implementations, reviewing system calculations. So there's actually quite a bit of interaction between the groups.
Q: It sounds like a “checks and balances” situation.
It very much is. It’s become a 401(k) kind of world. People understand 401(k) plans. There is less understanding of traditional pension plans, as there are fewer of them being offered to those entering the workplace. That’s where the administration side can step in and say, "Okay, we speak the language and understand the communication needs. We are able to translate the complex plans into forms and communications that a participant can understand and complete."
Q: What about Milliman made it particularly well positioned to grow into this business of administering retirement plans?
One of the first things we do when we take over a new plan is to review the plan document. We go through it, we read it, we interpret it. Then we look at how the company or the prior service provider has been administering the plan. It is rare that the document matches administration 100%. Over time, administration can become routine and vary from the documentation. We begin our relationships with discussion of administration to make sure we create processes that will work for the client, the participants and us. We also make sure the document accurately states what we are doing. We perform ongoing service reviews to ensure we stay aligned with our clients needs. Our population at Milliman is much more credentialed than anywhere I've ever worked before. Our focus on training and ongoing education makes us much more than just a transaction shop. We really are a full-service consulting firm.
When my children were a little younger, I used to describe what I did by saying, “We're the premier daycare for your 401(k) plan. It still belongs to you, the employer, but when you bring us your plan, we're going to make sure that it's well taken care of. You still have responsibility for it, all the filings, things like that. But you're paying us to make sure that it's safe.” And that's what Milliman is. We are the top-line daycare for these plans.
It’s also important to note that we are not a fund company just trying to hold onto the assets. Our main focus is to make sure the plan operates correctly.
Q: As the global economy changes, how is the outlook changing for 401(k) and pension plans? And what does the future look like for Milliman in terms of addressing some of these big shifts?
I don't think that the plans that we have in place today will look the same down the road. You know, 401(k) plans really weren't intended to be a retirement plan. They were intended to supplement your pension plan. But companies today can't afford those pension plans. So now everyone's relying on 401(k) plans that are not well funded, because many people don't understand investments well enough. So we're just starting to see people retiring who may have only 401(k) money, as opposed to a traditional pension plan.
What I like about Milliman and our prospects for the future is that our structure allows us to be a lot more nimble than other companies. At some other big companies, you have to go through 47 different committees to make a single change. Well, we don't operate like that. Our management structure allows us to quickly adjust to a changing marketplace. That’s something those large institutions can’t do.
Q: Is that one of the things that brought you to Milliman?
Yes, absolutely. That, and the fact that this is a place where individuals can make an impact and that’s not easy to find. Here, you really do control your own destiny. Many decisions are made at the local level. We have committees to share ideas and best practices instead of committees to control budgets and dole out resources Milliman is attractive to people who aren't looking for a position where they can just hide for the next 20 years. There is no place to hide here. I mean that in a good way. We don't have staff that just coast. I don't think you can find anybody in Milliman who would fit that category.
Q: You worked for other companies before you came to Milliman. What motivated you to make the move?
I worked for a company that did 401(k) plans. I had been there for a number of years and gone through different acquisitions and many different logos on the letterhead. I had a few hundred people reporting to me, but the only time I was dealing with actual clients was when they were so mad that they needed to talk to the person in charge. It was generally unpleasant. The policies were cumbersome. It was all about the bottom line and profits this week as opposed to looking toward the future. On a personal level, I missed dealing with clients. And one of the things about Milliman is that, no matter where you are in the organization, you still have the opportunity to deal with clients on a day in/day out basis. Milliman also has the best clients, so that's a fun thing. So the next time I was faced with an acquisition, I just said, “You know, this is a time for me to make a change and get back to the things I enjoy including dealing with clients directly.”
Q: It sounds like you're happy you made the change.
Very much so. In fact, let's see...I've got five people who work for me now who used to work for me other places. These are great people who believed me when I told them about the Milliman work environment. I wouldn't have tried to recruit them if I didn’t believe that this was a great place to work.
Q: Can you talk about the team of people who you work with at Milliman now?
Well, as we started to grow, I reached out to some individuals I knew and offered them positions. We also picked up some great individuals through business acquisitions. Almost this entire group is credentialed through ASPPA and is very client focused. I can’t imagine a better team.
Q: What’s your elevator pitch for people you're trying to recruit?
I always decided that it was time to find a new job if what I was doing didn't matter anymore, if I wasn't learning anything new. Those issues have always been important to me. So my pitch includes things like, "Hey, do you want to make a difference? Do you want to have an impact? Do you want to continue learning? You can make a difference here. You control your own destiny, because if you want to come in and just do the job you were hired for and do it really well—great. If you want to become a principal some day and own a piece of the firm, you can make that happen. You control your future." I also stress the fact that you get to work directly with clients. And if that's something that's of interest, this is the place to be because it happens every day.
We all have our up days and our down days. But one of the people I recruited from another firm once told me, “Even a bad day here at Milliman is better than the good days at my old job—and sometimes much better than those good days.” And then he said that he’d never had a day where he didn't want to get up in the morning and come to work. That’s true for me, as well.
Q: When interviewing employees, how do you determine whether a candidate is a good fit for Milliman?
The interview process can be grueling, as we have a number of individuals talk to candidates to cover technical knowledge, communication skills, client service orientation, and interest level. We often ask relatively odd interview questions. I like to find people who like to do jigsaw puzzles or mind teasers because we like problem-solvers. I want to know that they can balance their checkbooks, because there are lots of people who can’t, and hey, that's an important part of what we do: we make sure data and numbers work. Being goal oriented—finishing tasks is another important quality.
Q: What kind of advice would you give a new employee?
I would encourage them to ask questions and share ideas. We pair new people up with a buddy, so that they have somebody to work with directly—not only to learn the ropes from, but also to share ideas with. My biggest pet peeve is hearing someone say, "We do it this way because it's the way we've always done it." I truly believe that there's always a better way to do something, and the next new person who walks through the door might be the person with a better solution. So even if that person’s right out of school and doesn’t have a lot of experience, that doesn't mean that they won't come up with that next great idea that we need. We try to foster an environment of ideas—talking them through, seeing what works. Of course, we also set new employees on the path of ongoing training and ASPPA programs and taking exams. We encourage our employees to be hungry for education.
Q: Could you talk a bit about work/life balance?
One of the things that I learned right away when I started here was that Milliman will take as much as you are willing to give. So it was up to me to draw the line and to be realistic about where I wanted to go with my career. For example, one of the equity principals here has small children and he does not work in the office on weekends. He just absolutely does not physically come into the office. He might get up early in the morning on weekends to go online and do a few things there. But weekends he is at home for his children. That’s his line.
I know other people who, based on daycare or other issues, need certain hours. The way I view it, as long as you are getting your job done and focusing on that, the rest of it shouldn't be a problem. I think it would be a problem if I assigned somebody a job that couldn't humanly be done in less than 12 hours a day. But honestly, I've got people that work at different paces and different styles. And what takes one person one hour might take somebody else three. I think we're careful to balance what works for people and what doesn't, but we let them figure out how to get their work done.
Personally, when I first joined Milliman, my children were smaller. I did travel a bit, but not as much as I had in my previous job, so it felt like a treat to be home a little more. I also have the flexibility of being able to choose when I travel—there are not a lot of surprise trips. In past jobs, it was: “Here's the travel schedule—tough luck. Here are the hours—tough luck.” And we really are a lot more flexible than that.
There is a lot of flexibility. It's up to each person. And being a parent, I recognize that it's important to get to the choir concert or the soccer game. We cover for each other when those things happen. And in this day and age, the ability to do things remotely allows for even greater flexibility.
Q: Is there anything you do now in your current position that you never expected to be doing?
I joined Milliman with 20 years of defined contribution experience so I’m not sure I expected to work on defined benefit plans. Since one of my requirements from work is to continue to learn new things—this one fills that need. My prior position was more internally focused. I didn’t realize how close I would become to my clients.
I once heard someone say that the best thing you can do is surround yourself with really bright people. There are many days here at Milliman where I look around, and I see the kinds of questions going back and forth via email, or kinds of conversations people are having, and I think, "Wow. I definitely am surrounded by a lot of really, really smart people." And the best part is that they're all resources for me. If I've got a client that needs something I've never heard of, I have the best talent surrounding me to help with that. I always viewed Milliman as being top notch. And now that I’m on the inside it hasn't changed at all. I think the people here are actually even smarter than I thought they were.