Adjusting to the New NormalA conversation with Alex King, founder and CEO of Actuaries OnTap April 2023
First, can you tell us briefly why you created Actuaries OnTap?
I established Actuaries OnTap in May of 2019 to provide insurers with insights and resources to grow their businesses, better understand the learnings from past experiences, and provide driven and passionate actuaries the opportunity to make a difference while working within a varied and dynamic team.
Can you tell us about your journey from the beginning of your career to founding your own company?
I have always wanted to run my own company. In fact, I set up and ran my own “Play by Mail” football company when I was 13 years old. This helped to give me some extra pocket money when I was growing up, and it gave me the (business) buzz even back then.
My first actuarial job was with HSBC in the U.K., starting in pensions. Within a few months, I was managing a small team. I had no formal management training, so I really had to learn on the spot, but this experience taught me a lot about people management and how to get the best out of people and create a fun but engaging environment.
I worked in various areas within HSBC in my seven years, and after that time, I got a taste for reinsurance and wanted to experience a smaller company. Shortly after joining Pacific Life Re (PL Re; at that time Scottish Re) in a pricing role, I moved into a client-facing role which ultimately ended with me as Head of Protection (U.K. & Ireland). My prior experience dealing with various reinsurers had given me insight into the good and not-so-great ways that reinsurers operated, and I strived to bring the best things to our target clients.
After seven years (you’ll see a pattern here), I had the opportunity to move to Asia to help support PL Re’s business growth and bring some of my learnings from the U.K. to refine their strategy. Not long after arriving, I was asked to take up the position of managing director of the business. I loved my time there and met some great people, both clients and also colleagues. We grew the business, established the company as a strong alternative to some of the bigger reinsurers, and launched some innovative new products in different markets.
I saw an opportunity to establish an actuarial consulting company and discovered the itch I had from a young age to have my own business hadn’t gone away. In fact, I had part of the idea in the U.K. just before I left for my new role in Asia. I could see a gap between what the mainstream consultancies offered and a model where we would attract the best talent, charge a lower price and ensure the majority of fees went to the consultants doing the work. I sounded out a few trusted client contacts, and it resonated strongly with them. That was all the encouragement I needed, and I decided to turn my back on corporate life and go it alone. I have loved the journey so far, and my only wish was that I had done it a little earlier.
In your experience and opinion, what are the pain points in the market?
One of the biggest pain points in the market is the lack of talent and the limited options and sources available to meet those needs.
Many insurers and reinsurers are all seeking similar skills and experience, and the key challenge is there aren’t enough people to go around. Also, some of the smaller players have huge opportunities to grow, but it is even harder for them to attract and justify the expense of hiring the key talent they require.
There is also the challenge of some recruitment firms “double dipping”—persuading an employee to move to a new role with another company and then getting in touch with that same company to fill that new vacancy on either a temporary or permanent basis. This causes frustration and material extra cost. Although this is sometimes not easy to identify, it is becoming more widely recognized.
In your experience, what are the major obstacles a startup faces, and what are the skills required to overcome these?
There are many obstacles along the way, for sure, so I would say that resilience is likely to be the key skill required. In my case, I did it on my own, so there were certainly days when I needed to call on this a lot, along with determination. It is important to always have sight of what has gone well when a few things don’t work out. For me, that helped me to remain positive and also to take the learnings from when something didn’t quite go as planned.
Another would be the importance of your network. Throughout my career, I have enjoyed meeting new people and getting to know them as individuals rather than just a client or a contact. This helped a lot when I was looking to grow the business—being able to get in touch and discuss business opportunities with them or perhaps ask them to consider joining the team.
You had already built and led a sizeable team prior to establishing your own organization. What were the challenges you faced, and what did you learn in adopting a new way of operating a business and interacting with your current team?
The team members I had at PL Re were from various backgrounds, and that taught me a lot in terms of how to manage people with different motivations and goals. The main challenge I faced at the start was balancing the sourcing for new projects and hiring a team to work on them. Initially, I focused on bringing in people, and I targeted those whom I knew well in the market and whose skills were a good complement to my weaknesses. They were excited by the new prospects, but they really wanted to know more about the work they would be doing.
I had to quickly pivot and focus more on bringing in new engagements so I could more clearly demonstrate to potential new hires what they would be doing for the first few months, which would give them the necessary motivation to step away from their existing role, often with a much more established company. This meant long days, as aligning the work and hiring was almost impossible. Therefore, I had to balance three things—hiring, business development and consulting—to deliver on the projects I had sourced. It was a big relief when the team came on board; I could step away from some of the consulting engagements and focus on growing the business.
You founded your organization before the COVID-19 pandemic when it was difficult to imagine quarantine and other safety protocols for most businesses, as well as their employees. How was your remote-based idea of operation conceived, and when did you start implementing it? What was the incentive or key motivator behind remote working?
The idea of a remote model was conceived as part of our goal to minimize fixed costs so that we can keep our rates competitive and ensure we are true to our goal of paying the majority of our fees to the consultants doing the work. I asked many of my first hires their thoughts on not having an office, and it quickly became clear that this was an attractive benefit for the role and that it also gave us the flexibility to operate on the client’s premises, too, when required or preferred.
What was your clients’ perception regarding the method of operations when you initially approached them? Did you face any criticism or difficulty convincing them to seek business with your team? How does that perception compare with today?
In the initial stages, my biggest challenge was that clients were buying my services rather than those of Actuaries OnTap. This sometimes made it more difficult to bring in other team members to projects even though they were well placed to deliver what was required. It also required me, on occasion, to convince the client to try using our India-based resources and give them the option to terminate early if it either wasn’t working logistically or they didn’t find the team member a good fit to their needs.
We have a rigorous two-stage interview process that seeks to hire only the best actuaries, and this ensures that I remain confident when assigning one to a project team. After all, our reputation depends on what we deliver, and some of the best marketing comes from recommendations following the completion of a challenging project.
Nowadays the brand is more established, and we have a strong client base among many of the multinational insurers in Asia. Also, post-COVID, many have efficiently worked from home so now there is greater acceptance of the viability of a remote working model and an appreciation that it doesn’t really matter whether you are ten miles from the office or two thousand.
When hiring actuaries, what do you normally look for?
My main goal through the interview process is to test for technical depth and also logical communication skills. I believe these two skills are essential for modern-day actuaries, especially as there are often requirements to communicate technical matters to a fairly nontechnical audience. This is especially important given our largely remote working model. My ultimate test is to put myself in the shoes of a client and decide, following the second interview, whether my interaction with this consultant enhanced my view of Actuaries OnTap as an organization and whether I would seek to use them for my next potential project.
The majority of interviews are done remotely, and therefore I try not to use video for the interviews to avoid any unconscious bias based on appearance or body language. I find this makes me really listen to what the candidate is saying. I also try to identify through tone if a candidate is enthusiastic and in which areas they are more interested or motivated.
Who is the key beneficiary of this remote model? Your business, your employees or your clients?
This really is the epitome of why I established the business in the first place, and I believe it has been achieved. It is designed to create an organization that is a win-win for all. Our clients benefit from high-quality resources at an attractive price, available at short notice to deliver key projects. The employees get a variety of work, receive the majority of the fees, and have the ability to do flexible work as we match projects to the time they are available. The business has grown, the brand has become more well-known, and the journey to build it to its current size and reputation has been very enjoyable.
What are your expectations regarding your model for consulting? Do you foresee it becoming widely accepted and adopted? If so, then why?
I genuinely believe our model is the way that consultancy should operate going forward. It is fully transparent, allows for flexibility for all and provides a remuneration model with options to match the preferences of each employee. I do not feel that the future promise of being a partner in exchange for working extremely long hours for years resonates with today’s employees. It may take some time for the entire market to switch over, and it may not be for all. However, the team and clients will vouch for its merits.
What message would you like to give to an actuary aspiring to be an entrepreneur? What would you recommend them to possess before stepping into the role?
I strongly encourage actuaries to be brave and step out of their comfort zone, whether to be entrepreneurial and establish a new business or try a role or company in a new and different area. We work for very long portions of our lives, and good actuaries are likely to be in demand for some time to come. The risk, therefore, of making that switch or starting something new is unlikely to be as great as one may think it to be, as the chance of reverting back into a more traditional or familiar role will likely be there should they wish.
It is, of course, important to have a plan and also to make sure you have some money put aside to pay for your expected outgoings while you are in the building phase and until the business makes money. Be realistic, but at the same time, dream a little and think what might be possible. This should then help you create the base scenario along with predictions for optimistic and pessimistic outcomes. I found great satisfaction in both looking back and forward on how things were going and reflecting on the original plans that I made for the business. This kept me grounded even as I kept a more optimistic vision of where we were headed in mind.
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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