Actuary Career Switch

Actuary Steven Argyris, FSA, ACIA, took a risk and tried something new Jing Lang

Photo: Matthew Kissoondass

You are CEO of Skyview Suites. What does the company do?

We provide furnished rentals. We serve clientele who need to relocate across Canada for business or medical purposes. They stay in our portfolio of furnished apartments that range from studios to three bedrooms.

On the medical relocation side, we work intimately with a charity called StayWell. StayWell’s mission is to provide access to accommodations for all Canadians, caregivers and families required to relocate for medical treatment.

After eight years in an actuarial career, you pivoted to something completely different. What drew you to make that change?

Although I enjoyed my work as an actuary, there was something that just seemed to pull me in a different direction—an entrepreneurial itch. After spending years as an actuary quantifying risk, I felt it was time for me to take a risk and try something new.

During the early days at Skyview Suites, we had a small team, so I worked on everything. The role change from actuarial was drastic. I went from having a fairly structured day to completely unstructured and working on a set of problems with much greater breadth. The mindset and rigor of approaching problems that were built over my actuarial career, however, stayed the same.

It was challenging to figure out where to focus my efforts at first. Due to our small team size, it was difficult to pull myself out of daily operations to transition from “working in the business” to “working on the business.” Gradually, over time, we were able to grow our staff and, as a result, build an operational team around me.

Now, most of my time is spent building the business. But the time I spent working in an operational capacity helped me develop a complete understanding of our business operations, a knowledge base I lean on daily to make decisions.

What is the single most significant business challenge you have faced?

This one’s easy—the pandemic. What’s funny is that we were looking into purchasing pandemic-related insurance a year earlier because it was one of the few “black swan” events that could disrupt our business, but it ended up being cost-prohibitive. If I remember correctly, you needed a pandemic every 10 years for it to pay off.

Upon the announcement of the lockdowns, corporate travel dried up in days, essentially destroying the demand side of our business. It was a really challenging time for our company, and it tested our resolve. Three-quarters of the industry significantly reduced their inventory footprint or folded completely—it was truly the survival of the fittest. We had to find creative solutions to survive. A combination of things worked out, including focusing on medical-related travel and consolidation of inventory assets in key locations. In the end, it served to strengthen the company and set us on a better long-term trajectory.

What’s the origin of StayWell, the charity you founded?

It’s a very serendipitous story. In 2018, my colleague met a patient who needed a double lung transplant. She had to relocate from Ottawa to close to Toronto General Hospital to be eligible for the transplant. As we learned more about the challenges involved in this process, in particular around the accommodation needs, we wanted to help. We provided housing for her family close to the hospital at a reduced rate during her surgery. The fact that we could do something in that moment to help this patient and her family was extremely fulfilling.

It also led us down a rabbit hole of discovery, where we realized there was a significant need for medical relocation in Canada. We started StayWell in 2018 with three bookings and 135 nights that year. Fast-forward five years, we are at 2,000 bookings and 50,000 room nights and counting. I’m truly proud of what we’ve accomplished and look forward to providing support to patients across Canada in the coming years.

How do you leverage technology and analytics?

In the early days of our business, I felt as though I was steering a ship in a deep fog without any nautical instruments or compass. It was challenging to operate based on anecdotal observations.

Two years ago, we made the commitment to change our decision-making process to rely on empirical evidence whenever possible. That involved identifying the aspects of the business that would yield the greatest value in incorporating a data-driven approach, which included investing in technology (primarily software) and staff capable of interpreting the data.

Specifically, the implementation of customer support software had the biggest impact. As an example, we went from having no control over the booking experience to complete control. We implemented minimum response time standards (time SLAs), enabled sharing of lead requests among colleagues, created and shared an internal and external knowledge base, and incorporated pregenerated macro content for lead response, among other changes. This has enabled us to measure, monitor, control and report on the core aspects of our business, even beyond the booking experience.

Now, I can confidently say that most of our core decisions are based on observations that are true and verifiable. I’m thankful that we now have a compass that works.

You have been with Skyview Suites for 10 years now, and for the last three years you have been the company’s CEO. In your role as CEO, what was easier than you expected? What was harder? Any surprises?

Nothing is easy, but working with outstanding and motivated colleagues makes some things easier. Managing and guiding a team of people is challenging. Before I was in my role as CEO, our group operated without openly discussing our hopes, dreams and fears, without aligning our visions or setting timelines. We did not have a clear, unified direction. Something needed to change. And from there came one of the biggest surprises for me—the power of shared alignment.

A few years ago during a late-night meeting, one of our junior partners posed a question, “What’s our five-year plan?” That question led to a three-hour conversation, and what emerged was that we had no clear answer. That is how we realized we needed a plan.

From there, we hired an external consultant who specialized in corporate strategic planning. Since then, we have been more aligned than ever as a team, which has led to big jumps in productivity and higher engagement.

You obtained the FSA designation even after you changed industries. Why was that education and skill set still important to you?

I was close to getting the designation prior to leaving my actuarial corporate job. I only had two exams left, so I could see the finish line. It was important to me to finish something I had started and to which I had devoted so much of my time. I had, and still have, a lot of respect for the actuarial profession. I have a fond memory of finally seeing those magic words—“You have met minimum requirements”—on the screen as I found out I passed the last exam.

You’re an avid golfer. ­What do you love most about the game?

I grew up playing golf with my grandparents. Introducing me to golf was the best gift they ever gave me. It’s something I truly love to do alone, with friends or with random people I meet on the course.

I think the best way to describe why I love golf is through a famous quote from the late Arnold Palmer: “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening—and it is without a doubt the greatest game [human]kind has ever invented.”

How do you define success and fulfillment?

I think it all comes back to value and meaning. Am I doing something that I value and those around me (my family, community, society) value? Is it something in which I see meaning?

What are your core values?

I have three core values:

  1. Perseverance—a trait that’s necessary for any business and entrepreneur to stay the course.
  2. Working smart—by achieving the maximum with minimum effort, you can do a lot of things.
  3. Humility—you can always learn from someone or something.

What are one or two things from your actuarial education that still serve you today?

Funny enough, they are more along the lines of macro-economic concepts, though they were taught somewhere in the actuarial syllabus. Understanding the value of your time through opportunity cost is an important one. Efficient market theory also has stuck with me: If something is too good to be true, it generally is.

Steven Argyris, FSA, ACIA, is CEO of Skyview Suites and is based in Toronto.
Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is vice president, product and pricing, at Insurance Supermarket Inc. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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