Building a Fulfilling Actuarial Career Path

A conversation with Sean Kim, FSA, MAAA, head of M&A Solutions at Munich Re Life US Interview by Jing Lang

You’ve had an unconventional career path. Can you please tell us about the start of your actuarial journey?

My actuarial career path was nontraditional, to say the least. I started taking exams well after I graduated from the University of Waterloo, mainly because I was still unsure what I wanted to do, and these exams gave me tangible, bite-size goals I could work toward. Between the exams and working at a life insurance carrier in Toronto, I became more engaged in my work and, more specifically, the types of problems I was trying to solve and the skills I needed to tap into to solve them.

Over the next several years, I worked in different roles that were both traditional and nontraditional actuarial positions. I’d argue that the role that benefited me most was when I had the opportunity to create and oversee a process to manage the profitability and performance of the company’s U.S. life business, with a particular focus on managing distribution. Although this was a very unconventional career path from an actuarial perspective, I was able to learn and get involved in the entire insurance value chain—from product development, distribution, underwriting and administration to in-force management and claims adjudication. In hindsight, this role formed the foundation of the next decade of my career.

What has the last decade been like for you?

I joined Munich Re in 2015 as an actuary in the company’s Global Actuarial Consulting Group. During my three years there, I worked on a variety of projects across different functions and global business units. But I would say the best part of my time there was having the privilege to work with and manage an incredible group of talented people who shared my growth mindset.

As the next step in my actuarial career path, I took a role in Munich Re Life’s newly established New York City office in 2018 as a marketing actuary, where I was responsible for the profit and loss of a portfolio of clients. This role quickly facilitated the growth of my network in the U.S. insurance industry, which naturally led to my next role as the head of Business Development for our U.S. life business. In 2023, I ended up taking on a newly formed position where I provide solutions in the insurance mergers and acquisitions (M&A) market, a new area of focus for Munich Re. Although I’ve only been in this role for about 10 months, I’ve learned a ton about a completely different side of the business and have met a number of great people.

How has relocating to New York City been for you and your family?

I have very strong roots in Toronto—I was born there and had spent my entire life there. It was all I’d ever known. The decision was further complicated in that it required uprooting my wife and two young kids from all they’ve ever known to venture into uncharted territory—with no guarantees about how things would turn out.

The first thing I want to say is that this type of change would not have happened without the full support of my family. Family always comes first for me, so no matter what, I wouldn’t have made this move if they weren’t 100% behind me. I’m fortunate that I have a family that not only supports me but also has guided me through the many difficult decisions I’ve had to make throughout the course of my life.

What attracted me most to the opportunity in New York City was the potential for growth. I’m not just talking about career growth. I’m talking about the overall growth mindset I have as a person and we have as a family. I’m a very growth-driven person, so any time I’m given an opportunity to be put in an uncomfortable situation where I’m forced to learn and adapt, I’m interested. I saw this move as an opportunity for us to embark on a new adventure and expand our world as a family. Our roots in Toronto will always be there. Now we are expanding and growing new roots in New York.

For More on Mentorship

The Society of Actuaries (SOA) MentorLink program facilitates one-to-one mentoring relationships that connect mentees with leaders in the actuarial industry. MentorLink will help mentors and mentees expand their networks, gain new knowledge and insights, and build new skills as they explore the actuarial career path.

Have there been any unexpected developments from the relocation?

Having strong roots in Toronto also meant I had a large network of extended family and friends. I feel fortunate to have that network, but naturally that meant allocating a lot of my time to them in addition to my immediate family. I don’t mean that in a negative way. In fact, I’m a social person and love spending time with others, so leaving my extended family and friends was by far the hardest part of the decision to move. What I didn’t realize at the time, which in hindsight seems obvious, is that all the time I previously had spent with others was allocated back to my wife and kids when we moved to New York. It was now just us four, exploring and going on daily adventures in a new world. This made us much closer and was by far the best unexpected outcome of the move.

You mentioned you are comfortable with discomfort and have a growth mindset. Please elaborate.

Simply put, my mission in life is to become the best version of myself, and I see challenges and discomfort as opportunities to grow and become a better me. That mindset has led to me being put into uncomfortable situations more times than I can count, which is why I’ve gotten accustomed to those situations. It’s also why I’ve had a somewhat unconventional career path that included nontraditional actuarial roles. I embrace the grind.

In your current role as head of M&A Solutions, what opportunities do you see that current market conditions enable?

The market for life and annuity business is hot right now given the confluence of supply and demand. The demand is there with buyers looking to add assets they can manage, earn fee and spread income on. The supply is there with sellers looking to shed capital-intensive business and optimize their return profile. As the market gets more competitive, the blocks for sale have become more complex. As a global reinsurer that underwrites complex liabilities, Munich Re sees a huge opportunity to come in and offer a breadth of solutions to both buyers and sellers. The beauty is that our solutions are designed to complement (vs. compete against) the current market participants.

How do you define success and fulfillment?

I want to be able to provide the best life and experiences for my family while thriving as the best version of myself.

What impact does your heritage have on your attitude toward work?

My heritage has a profound impact on who I am as a person, so that naturally extends to my approach to my work and career. Although I was born in Canada, my parents were Korean immigrants who valued education and respect for others above anything else. Their focus on education influenced my desire to always continue learning and is the reason for my intellectual curiosity. I spend a considerable amount of time reading and learning because I’m curious to know more about topics relevant to my work and industry.

Treating people with respect regardless of age or status is also important to me, and frankly, I believe it should be important to everyone. I genuinely believe you can learn as much from a new graduate as you can from an executive. They each may offer different insights, but they are equally valuable.

Reports show that in the United States and Canada, there are more Asian actuaries in technical roles than in business development and leadership roles. Do you have any words of advice for those who would like to move from the former to the latter?

If you think about the main difference between a technical role and a business development or leadership role, it’s really the people element or what some call “interpersonal skills.” I think working in leadership roles may come a bit more naturally for those who like meeting new people and being around others. But that’s not to say that introverts can’t be great leaders, nor does it mean that all social people make good leaders or are strong in business development roles.

I offer the following suggestions for those who are looking to get into business development or leadership roles:

  • Care about the people you work with—both your colleagues and your clients and business partners. I think genuinely caring about others is fundamental to being a good leader.
  • Good communication is not about having an extensive vocabulary or perfect pronunciation. It’s about listening to and understanding what people are trying to say and delivering your own messages in a clear and effective manner. Before delivering your message, take a moment to think through who you’re speaking to and what may resonate with them.
  • Embrace curiosity—both intellectual curiosity as well as being curious about the people you meet. By asking questions and showing genuine interest in others, you will not only form deeper connections, but you also will grow as an individual.
Sean Kim, FSA, MAAA, is head of M&A Solutions at Munich Re Life US. He is based in New York.
Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, MAAA, FLMI, is a contributing editor for The Actuary and is currently on sabbatical. She is based in Toronto.

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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