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Servaas Houben

Willemstad, Curacao

Job at time of interview: Head of Actuarial, ENNIA

 

Can you describe your role at ENNIA?

I am heading the actuarial department, which involves pricing of insurance products, modelling of insurance risks, and regular reporting. The role requires frequent interaction with the board, sales and finance.

 

What is the biggest challenge you face as head of the team?

Balancing the urge for quick delivery with the need for long-term planning. Working for a relatively small company implies one is exposed to lots of different challenges during the day, and there is the risk that insufficient time is spent thinking things through and developing longer-term solutions. I create time by letting some of my team members attend meetings which are closest to their specialism, providing them opportunities to work with other departments and start seeing the bigger picture, while giving me time to structure work and spot potential risks at an early stage.

 

Is it difficult to articulate the concepts involved in actuarial calculations when communicating with non-technical partners?

I strongly agree with Einstein's view, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Although the calculations we perform can be rather complicated and non-intuitive, I usually overcome this by showing the impact of a calculation and explaining the drivers behind this. Then I show which drivers are most significant and why these factors explain most of the impact. This provides decision-makers with sufficient information to decide for themselves what realistic assumptions should be used. Furthermore, I believe that when one is challenged with questions which you haven't considered yet, you should be frank and admit some further research and thought is required before answering the question. In the end, the quality of your work will form the perception that other people have of you, and hence trying to wing difficult challenges does not work in the long run.

 

Which risk management best practice should be non-negotiable?

A regular update on risk assessment. As a company is active in dynamic markets where the amount of data and insurance experience can be limited, it is quite vital to regularly assess any new risks that might emerge, and understand what kind of risks customers believe are most threatening and hence would like to insure. Furthermore, training and rotation of team members is important to avoid key man dependency risk within a team, and the dependency on external consultants.

 

What skills and traits do you look for when recruiting?

A keen interest in pricing, broad experience in insurance and pensions, and a specific interest in this company. The main requirement for a job interview is good preparation. Also, for the Dutch Caribbean, some international experience is highly preferable as the blend of people on the islands is rather mixed and people speak several languages. Some experience living and working in foreign countries would be handy as life in the Caribbean may be very different from life in most Western countries.

 

Is there anything you wish you'd known when you began your career?

Never stop studying and extending your knowledge. As we are working in a field impacted by ever-changing regulations, one cannot afford to stop developing oneself. Secondly, networking is a great way of extending your knowledge and connecting to interesting people. Just try to find a way of networking that works for you. I am not much of a group person, and hence regular one-to-one coffee catch-ups work best for me. For other people, attending presentations or going for company drinks might work best. LinkedIn can be a great tool to share your work challenges with people in your industry and for getting to know lots of interesting people. Lastly, don't compare yourself with others: every career is unique and when yours differs from others, that might actually mean you are on the right track.

 

You mentor junior staff. What is the most important piece of advice you give them?

Keep asking questions and provide ideas for improvement, even to more senior people. As the work we perform is rather complex, it is easy to overlook things, so every idea might be valuable. Within my team, I try to stimulate a culture where people don't hesitate to share ideas with others. I strongly believe everyone has strengths and weaknesses and as a team you should try to combine all this, which means in practice I am not too proud to ask for advice from one of my team members.

 

Do you have a mentor?

At the moment I don't have a particular person in my life who is a mentor. However, in the past I have found that people outside your company can be great mentors, as they are not directly involved in the politics of the job, and can therefore more easily give their views. At the moment, I have colleagues and friends with whom I share good articles and books, and some people at work who I frequently bounce ideas off. LinkedIn is a great platform for sharing information as well, and my experience so far has been that people are really willing to help.

 

What motivated you to sit for the FRM Exam?

My background is mainly in insurance, and the FRM Exam has broadened my scope and has made me more aware of the kinds of risks a financial institution is faced with. Furthermore, the FRM program nicely combines quantitative analysis with qualitative risk assessment and all kinds of legal and regulatory developments, and hence provides a good overall picture of risk management.

 

What advice do you have for those considering the FRM Exam?

Most people take the exams in combination with a job. Hence, one needs to be rather disciplined and committed to be successful. Furthermore, I believe that you achieve the highest leverage when studying a topic you can also apply during work. So, assess whether the FRM is the most applicable, or if another program can be more beneficial to you at this stage of your career. I am quite skeptical that just studying a particular topic will get you into an industry, and instead believe that once you excel in a particular field, it might be easier to switch to a different field.

 

What attracted you to the insurance industry?

Interesting interaction between regulations, modeling and mathematics. Also the insurance landscape is ever changing due to new regulations, which makes the profession very interesting.

 

Within insurance, who would benefit from the FRM designation?

People interested in risk management and keen to know more about economic capital in a banking environment.

 

You have been an Individual Member of GARP for more than 5 years now. How has membership been of value?

The regular chapter meetings have been very valuable for meeting people, and the GARP conferences in London have been very interesting. Also, the organization is still quite young and hence it is rather easy to get involved and contribute by, for example, presenting at a local chapter meeting or writing articles.

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