Take the Leap

Q&A with Bill Rearden, ASA, MSc, MA, co-founder and CEO of Ironbound Consulting Group

Photograph: Rob Tannenbaum

What is the most interesting and rewarding aspect of your job?

As co-founder and chief executive officer of Ironbound Consulting Group, we created dream jobs for ourselves and our team. I basically work all the time and enjoy every aspect of it. Our company’s core mission is to help build a better world, so everything we do generates positive outcomes.

We are a boutique strategy consulting firm on Wall Street, so we get called in on all kinds of unique, sizable and forward-looking projects. In the coming decade, we are expected to experience more change than we have in the last 50 years. For us this means we get to work with our clients on really big outside-the-box ideas. To do this we have had to accelerate our understanding of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities in addition to gathering an even deeper knowledge around blockchain, cloud processing and big data.

The most rewarding aspects of my job are the life experiences that come with being an entrepreneur. It is absolutely unreal—beyond my wildest dreams. In just a few years, our organization’s brand awareness has grown tremendously. As a result, our network effect has ballooned, enabling us to work with celebrities, star athletes, and fortune 100 CEOs and their board members. My advice to actuaries who are curious about entrepreneurship is to take the leap; you won’t regret it.

As a CEO, what is your definition of leadership?

My definition of leadership goes beyond job titles. My driving philosophy in life is: We rise by lifting others. I approach every aspect of leadership with how I can help lift others to achieve the success they desire. For me, leadership is about leveraging access to remove barriers and expedite forward progress. Each team member brings value to an organization, even if not directly applicable. Successful leadership must inspire people to pursue their passions and be the best version of themselves.

How have your international travels helped you to grow as an actuary, leader and person in general?

Traveling has helped me grow as a person by connecting with people from different cultures. Early in my childhood, I traveled extensively internationally. During my formal schooling years, I lived in major cities spanning across North America from Toronto, Washington D.C., all the way west to San Francisco. After completing graduate school, I spent a year in Taiwan as a research fellow working on solvency validation related to market risk models. I also gained proficiency in Mandarin Chinese during my time there.

This broad and eclectic world travel has helped me understand the value of subculture nuances. Trained as an economist, I keenly observe how people consume differently around the world. This experience has been the most valuable for my growth as a leader, enabling me to build powerful business relationships around the world.

Probably the most important takeaway from my international journeys is that all actuaries are very much alike. We all share the common trials and experience of exam writing. Aside from political and economic differences, we also speak the same language when it comes to industry-related risks. Global reporting standards are further binding us together as international professionals.

How do you help decision-makers and entrepreneurs take calculated risks?

Many executives make crucial strategic business decisions based on gut feelings. Much of the information they receive is around expected results enveloped between best and worst case scenarios. When founding Ironbound Consulting Group, we wanted to expand this simple static framework into something more dynamic. The idea of modeling out macro relationships and generating numerous simulations is commonplace among actuaries and econometricians, but very novel to business executives and board members planning out strategy.

By generating a large number of scenarios around strategic actions, we help our c-suite clients take more calculated risks. First, instead of acting from the gut, they have robust quantitative metrics of confidence. Second, we can translate key drivers into benchmarks, aiding in their understanding of distant future outcomes more clearly. Third, using option-value techniques, we can use the results to quantify ideas, thereby better expressing value ranking around strategic decisions.

In a sense we are innovators, scaling up quantitative back-office analysis to a wider spectrum of front-office applications. It is pretty powerful to associate value and probabilities with strategic decisions. However, developing these tailored models is resource-intensive and thus a very scarce and niche offering. In the coming decade, AI will play a bigger role in corporate strategy. New and abundant efficient algorithms will replace scarce and uniquely tailored macro models along the value chain. Yes, I think people and professions are at risk, but I am convinced the opportunities for people will be much greater.

How has the actuarial profession changed and/or evolved?

The environment around the profession has evolved dramatically in the last 10 years. Actuaries of the past were beneficiaries of strategic advantages, which are now quickly evaporating with greater access to statistical software and data. Having served as chair of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) Entrepreneurial & Innovation Section council, and currently as a member of the SOA’s InsurTech Advisory Task Force, I am happy to share the profession is actively monitoring changes and aggressively taking action to maintain the value and relevancy of SOA members in the industry.

It also seems to me that in the last 10 years it has become increasingly more competitive to begin the actuarial career path. More students with multiple exams under their belts are looking for starts and internships than there are opportunities available. My advice to students is to focus less on passing more than one exam while in school. That time is better spent exploring the core disciplines that make up the actuarial sciences. In the near future, with greater automation in the workplace, I believe there will be wider demand for advanced thinking around risk and opportunity trade-offs, underpinning traditional cost-benefit analysis.

How do you describe a successful day?

For our team, every day is success. We obviously face many daunting and insurmountable challenges: business development issues, pitching new clients and, yes, dreadful rejections. Yet each day we work at them and, over time, breakthrough. What differentiates one day from the next is how we celebrate. Entrepreneurs often live like every day is our last, so every win is extremely important. This means celebrations are much more lavish—from top-shelf spirits, rare hand-rolled cigars, fancy dinners to VIP venues. We make sure every win lives up to the Wall Street ambiance.

What or who inspires you, and why?

My two inspirational entrepreneurs of all time are Henry Ford and Walt Disney. Both are idealistic and well known for believing that business should be a force for good in the world. Ford has a famous quote, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” Yet I continue to see many decision-makers stuck chasing small gains, or as the saying goes, “penny wise, pound foolish.” Ample evidence supports how creating holistic value can propel long-term sustainability and greater profits. I wish more business leaders were inspired to value all stakeholders more equally.

It may sound surprising that several years ago when I was starting out as an entrepreneur, I was super scared. In fact, I was so scared that it took more than a year for me to feel comfortable expressing my entrepreneurial spirit, and it was even longer before I started sharing it within the actuarial community. In the very beginning, I was advised by many people, including actuaries, not to pursue entrepreneurship. Deep down, however, I felt it was my calling and I desired to try it. The advice I received was pretty much spot on about the difficulties and time commitment. Every week is 100-plus hours filled with hustle, anxiety and uncertainty. Ford is also famous for saying, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” Although incredibly scared at first, I knew we could do it.

Disney is my other huge inspiration. His entrepreneurial story resonates deep within me, from ridicule to outlandish ideas. I am a big dreamer, and Disney’s famous saying—“If you can dream it, you can do it”—is my guiding wisdom. I am not alone. The number of inspiring people I have met all agree that their success boiled down to following their passion and pursuing their dreams. The most important takeaway from this article is: If you believe in something wholeheartedly, have the passion to fuel the needed ambition, then dream big and go for it. You will succeed!

Bill Rearden, ASA, MSc, MA, is co-founder and CEO of Ironbound Consulting Group.

Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.