Photo: Grace Fung
In 1993, months after graduating from college, Simon Tang, FSA, MAAA, uprooted his life and moved from Hong Kong to Iowa City, Iowa—a college town with a population similar to the occupancy of one apartment complex in Hong Kong—to pursue a bachelor’s degree in actuarial science. Knowing no one at the University of Iowa, Simon felt a big sense of relief when he saw how helpful and supportive the university community was. Reflecting on that time in his life, Simon says, “I probably would have pursued a different career path if I chose not to go or didn’t feel welcomed by the local community.”
In 2006, after a decade of actuarial work in the United States, Simon took on the chief actuary role for Cigna’s China business and moved back to Hong Kong with his wife, Grace. For almost eight years, Simon commuted daily between Hong Kong and Shen Zhen in mainland China, and he credits a lot of blue-sky thinking time to his commute. Both of their sons, Gavin and Darren, were born in Hong Kong. According to plan—but five years delayed—Simon and Grace moved back to the United States in 2014 to continue pursuing their careers and raise their family.
Today, Simon is the senior vice president and health pricing actuary at iptiQ, a digital insurance platform of Swiss Re. In this Q&A, Simon shares insights into his career and provides advice for other actuaries who are considering working in Asia.
You started your actuarial career in the United States. What motivated you to go back to Asia?
I believe diversity is a catalyst to grow one’s career, and I always have loved learning about new cultures and new markets. When I was with Cigna, I rotated into the international home office team, and later on, as chief actuary of International Expatriate Benefits, I gained exposure to different types of business across Europe, Latin America and China.
Equally important, these roles allowed me to build my professional network with smart people across the globe—I was impressed by their deep knowledge in their respective markets and how transferable the knowledge is. When I was presented with the chief actuary opportunity in China, it was an easy decision to accept the role because I could fulfill my career goal, join the think tank of international insurance professionals and serve the market of my heritage.
What were the most memorable events during your time in Asia?
Two events come to mind. First was the tragic event of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008: Nearly 90,000 lives were lost, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and schools were destroyed. I led Cigna China’s fundraising efforts to build two “hope schools.” I was fortunate to attend the opening ceremony of one of the schools, and my heart melted seeing the joy on the faces of the children and teachers—that really showed me the importance of contributing to the community we serve every day. We faced many obstacles during the fundraising process due to regulations, budgets and perceptions, which we passionately worked to overcome. At the end of the day, you will not find any of our names in the school building, but the sense of adding value and serving a community in need was the greatest fulfillment.
The second event was leading the launch of a new private medical insurance business. In that role, I leveraged my health care knowledge from the U.S. market and broadened my wingspan beyond my comfort zone within finance and actuarial to bring a brand-new proposition to the market that met the needs of different customer segments. In addition to focusing on risks and profitability, my team and I needed to be thoughtful about how to acquire and serve our customers in a timely manner and within budget. My international network came in handy. Although the local team was very talented, there was a big gap in health care knowledge, and business partners from the United States and Europe were helpful in bridging that gap and offered much-needed training. You can’t imagine how excited and proud we were when the first sale came through (and please don’t ask how we celebrated).
What made you gravitate toward health products as you progressed through your career?
My background includes both life and health products, and I see how both product lines can help our customers during different life events. Think about COVID-19, for example; hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, and this is truly an occasion whereby the life insurance industry can prove its value to society.
One reason I gravitate slightly toward the health side is because there are more frequent customer touchpoints, especially during the tough times when our customers need us the most. Think about a cancer patient and her family, and how much pain and grief they experience. While we cannot alleviate their physical and psychological trauma, the industry can help by settling their medical bills directly with providers under a comprehensive medical product. We also can even provide the much-needed lump sum cash benefit through a critical illness product. Health care spending accounts for almost 20 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). It presents an enormous opportunity, but affordability continues to be the tough problem yet to be solved.
What are some differences in workplace culture between the United States and China?
I noticed a few interesting differences during my time in China. First, you would be amazed by how fast the pace is there—and I am talking about a country that grew from a whole village sharing one landline to everyone having at least one mobile phone in a short period of time. If my memory serves me correctly, my team built and launched 10 or more products in the market every year. Innovation, coupled with support from regulators, fuels the growth of the insurance industry there.
Second, the workplace hierarchy system is more rigid in China. Sometimes I observed colleagues would hold back their ideas and opinions until the more senior folks expressed theirs first. When I was there, I tried hard to foster a culture where everyone’s voice could be heard. The nature of our job implies we are supposed to help our business partners to understand risks, so holding back our opinions would be a disservice to our organization and to personal career growth.
Third, work hours in China tend to be longer on average, which presents a challenge for the actuarial students to balance work, study and fun. I am still amazed to see how fast they can pass their exams.
Any advice for actuaries who are considering a role in Asia?
Pack up and go! Joking aside, an overseas assignment, especially in a completely new culture, can be exciting and intimidating at the same time. Often such assignments require multiyear commitments, so you need to carefully assess if it is right for you. To do that, make a list of the criteria important to you and your family. Assuming your decision is to accept the assignment, take on the opportunity with an open mind. Yes, you will and are expected to contribute in the role based on your experience from a different market; but no, copy and paste does not work. Each market is unique in certain aspects, so my advice is to get to the bottom of the business problems you need to tackle and don’t be afraid to reach out to experts in the market—or even other markets where similar problems may have occurred.
Another piece of advice I’d like to share is to set clear and candid expectations with your manager at the outset. They could be from a different background or culture, so it is beneficial to have an upfront mutual understanding.
Last, but certainly not least, have fun. Outside of work, don’t limit social activities to being with folks who share your origin, but rather try to immerse yourself in the new culture and make friends with the locals. To me, other than the work experience, the network of friends within and outside of the industry was the most valuable asset I accumulated during my time in Asia.
After nearly 18 years with an established insurance giant like Cigna, what attracted you to an InsurTech like iptiQ?
First, I must acknowledge I am a beneficiary of the robust development program at Cigna, and the many roles and responsibilities I took on while working there shaped my career. Meanwhile, I recognized the undeniable trend that technology advancement and data analytics are framing the exponential growth in the insurance industry. I was intrigued by the many InsurTechs that are carving a place for themselves in different niches, and I wanted to be part of the movement.
The fast pace and innovation at our company reminds me of my experience in China. In my current role as health pricing actuary, I contribute much more than traditional pricing. For example, when we introduce any new product, my team and I are involved from beginning to the end with anything you can think of in the process, including product design, negotiations with distribution partners, underwriting and operations setup, marketing communication and so on. I enjoy seeing how much of an impact my team and I make on the business in different areas, such as improving the way insurance is marketed and participating in the agent and consumer journeys that are created. By using data and agile capabilities, we build and deploy rapid enhancements.
In addition, I get to learn about new technology that improves our underwriting process, and our iptiQ family is finding better uses for leveraging data analytics to understand and manage our portfolio risk. Being a small organization also makes us a close-knit community and highly collaborative.
Finally, I am passionate about our company’s mission and values that focus on providing coverage and protection to American families. This aligns with my deep-rooted sentiment of supporting families, and the financial backing of Swiss Re helps make that happen.
You’ve always worked closely with nonactuarial functions. What’s your reaction to the perception that actuaries can work in a silo?
Actuaries cannot work in a silo. I am confident that well-trained pricing actuaries can come up with appropriate pricing within each organization’s return hurdle, but here is the question: How do you know if the product features you price can meet the needs of the market or your distribution? You have to sit down with your marketing and sales colleagues to understand what problems we are trying to solve and what propositions we want to bring to our salesforce. If possible, actuaries should participate in meetings with external business partners or listen to the feedback from focus group surveys—these activities certainly are beneficial to help us connect the dots.
None of us has the crystal ball (at least not one I have found). We rely on assumptions to price for the future and manage our risks. We need to make sure other gatekeepers, like our underwriting and claims teams, have the understanding of how the assumptions are developed, buy into the assumptions and, more important, be able to manage the risks according to the assumptions. In fact, it also applies to valuation actuaries, especially as we head into more principle-based regimes like International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS) 17—inputs from other teams like product, marketing, underwriting and investment are critical in assumption-setting and financial reporting. I don’t think it is an option for actuaries to choose to work in a silo nowadays.
What are your core values?
This is what I always tell my kids: No matter what you do, you always must respect others. To grow in your career, it is critical that the people with whom you work respect you and your contributions. As a first step, I always make sure I respect others before I can earn their respect in return. Social justice and discrimination are hot topics these days, and I question if we have done enough to respect each other regardless of any personality traits. I am a believer in the power of diverse opinions, and people who feel their voices are heard and respected are more willing to contribute their opinions regardless of the culture or society in which they live.
What is one question you ask yourself on a daily basis?
I grew up in a Buddhist family, so I believe in the law of cause and effect. To expand from the religious meanings of the law, it inspires me to question what the consequences will be for decisions I make and actions I take. From a career perspective, that helps me to formulate the different what-if scenarios, and most of the time I find it helpful since our roles try to address future uncertainties. More broadly, it challenges me to think carefully about how our actions and decisions may impact the people and communities we serve every day, and the potential consequences—both intentional and inadvertent.
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.
Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.