This week’s Share your Story is the final part of a three-part series featuring Frank Huang, FCAS, MAAA and Managing Director & Consulting Actuary at Merlinos & Associates. In today’s article we take a more specific look at Frank’s experience with consulting and love for his role as we reflect on the importance of loving your job. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part I & II.
Q: What made you interested in Merlinos?
A: Well, it’s an interesting and funny story. I was working in a nontraditional role at the time as Chief Actuary at ADP when Merlinos reached out. I really wasn’t interested but they were down the street from my house, and they were offering a free lunch. So, I agreed to meet up (admittedly I’m a sucker for free lunches). In my mind, I had always wanted to go back to consulting, but I also wanted to do something different since I had already worked at another consulting firm for over a decade. I wanted this new experience to be unique and different to add something to my skill set. From the first conversation onward, I had a good feeling that this was going to be different. I saw that they did very different work than what I was used to, it wasn’t just reserving for self-insureds. It was helping Departments of Insurance, regulatory agencies, insurers, reinsurers, self-insureds, agencies, private equity, and more. It was across the entire industry. So that was really unique and interesting.
The way that Merlinos gave responsibility to younger folks, that was also something that was very refreshing. I was used to maybe a more formulaic or rigid structure where you needed to get to a certain level of experience and credentials before you were given that responsibility. And there’s definitely pros and cons to that. But it was just refreshing to see something a little bit more organic.
Lastly, I was really interested in building a practice to support PEO insurance and risk issues. Merlinos was willing to give me that autonomy to do what I thought was best to reach that audience, but also to be a part of something bigger and not just be like a stand-alone silo. All of those things made it seem really interesting and I ultimately took the plunge back into consulting.
Q: Has the team grown since you started, or has it always been a smaller team?
A: We’ve definitely grown within the PEO group. When I first came on, and I think within the entire actuarial community, actuaries by themselves are a very niche profession. But when you start cordoning off and say, “okay, I need someone with just experience with PEO’s or with staffing firms.” It’s a really small sliver of a small sliver. So, I’ve been fortunate that people have really worked with me, I’ve been able to train folks so that we have a number of other directors or principals, as well as more junior folks that are well versed in PEO issues. Originally it was maybe me and one other person so that has definitely grown. And now we have a number of people, maybe half of the company is pretty fluent in PEO issues.
Q:With Davies acquiring Merlinos, how do you see the company changing in the near future?
A: Yeah, that’s a big question. I would try to look at this from an external and an internal perspective. I think externally, we have the benefit of Merlinos having a great long-standing reputation for solving complex problems and being thoughtful towards client issues. But now we have an opportunity to be a part of something bigger and Davies has so many other parts. I mean we’re a year into the relationship and there are still things that I’m learning about new organizations and new sister companies. There are so many other parts of that insurance supply chain within Davies, and that part is learning how to work together and provide a unique service and value to our clients. It’s one of the big changes that we’re going through. It’s an incredible opportunity that we have in the industry with all of these capabilities in one company, much less one that works well together. Granted, we’re nascent in our stage here to be able to build and provide something unique to clients.
I think everyone I’ve spoken to across all the different sister companies, at my level, have been very earnest in wanting to build something unique and amazing. Internally, our legacy Merlinos colleagues are finally getting used to being part of Davies. It’s a big shift for anyone, Merlinos has been private for 30 years and then to all of a sudden became part of this large company with UK and American values.
We’re starting to see the benefits of being part of Davies, with their support we’ve been able to do a lot of things that are beneficial for our colleagues. Time will tell how that gets realized but at least on paper, I think we’re at a point where I can confidently say that Merlinos is the best place for any consulting actuary to work. That includes for more junior folks, we have the most generous exam program in the industry, that was something that Davies supported us in revamping. And then we have a new bonus structure that explicitly rewards colleagues for every hour that they go beyond their target billable goal. Both, in terms of exam support and more explicit compensation, put us on par or better than the best in the industry.
Q: What have been some of the biggest challenges that Merlinos has faced more recently?
A: I don’t know if it’s recent. But I would say prior to my tenure, retention has probably been the biggest thing. I’m thankful for relationships like with DW Simpson, we’ve been able to fill roles quickly with people that we really liked. But retention has been a struggle. I don’t know if this is egotistical of us, but I’d like to think that our colleagues are given the training and experience across so many different types of actuarial work within the industry, that they have an opportunity to go many different directions on their next step. Because of the depth of experience that they have, it makes them more ripe for picking than maybe other consulting firms. When I came aboard, I looked at our history of people leaving and most folks left to try something different. And I don’t blame them, I did the same thing after 11 years in consulting. But there were some people who left to go to other consulting firms. That really made me think, well, hey, for the people who left to go to non-consulting, what was the reasons for it? Was there something about consulting that we did wrong that they didn’t like? If so, let’s fix that. But for the people going to another consulting firm, then there really is something whether it was compensation, the type of work or the feeling that they’re not getting invested in.
All of these things I wanted to take into consideration. In addition to our initiatives, we’re doing a lot of things that maybe we should have done a while ago, we’re making it even clearer on what it takes to get promoted to be a principal or a partner. I’m thankful I’ve worked at many different places, two different consulting firms, a large insurance carrier, and at a non-insurance fortune 300 company. I’m just trying to take everything that I know, working with our Merlinos colleagues, and building Merlinos to be the best place for any actuary to work.
Q: Do you think that is because younger actuaries need change more often because of the nature of their generation and their attention spans, or even just wanting to do so many things at once? And have you seen it with younger versus older employees in your situation?
A: I don’t think the generations are really all that different. I mean, I think everyone’s attention span as an actuary has got to be pretty decent. Is there more of a difference in terms of wanting to try new things or wanting to jump around more? Maybe, but I don’t know if it’s enough to say it’s a trend. When I look back at the people who have left our firm, and even when I look back at my own reasons, I think each one of them is different yet similar. Different in that it depends on people’s life stage (but not necessarily generations) and their own situations, but also similar in that it’s generally one of three things – (1) how well do they feel compensated, (2) do they feel valued, and (3) do they feel like they have a path forward at that company. As long as those three basic things are there, I don’t think there’s any generational override.
That said, as I get older, I’m a little bit more removed from the people straight out of college so it’s good to have those conversations, like what motivates you? It’s easy for leadership to assume that everyone is chasing money or is chasing prestige and title. But that may not be the case. It’s good to understand “Why do you get up each day”, “What’s here for you”, “Can we make this more interesting, more exciting”. I think overall as long as those three main things are there, and we keep communicating then it will help people stay happy.
Q: Any closing thoughts or any advice on something that you feel like you’d like to share?
A: My advice is just pass exams. I was not the best student and I just want to emphasize to people do not underestimate how difficult the exams are. Study hard. Sacrifice. Grind it out. It’s totally worth it when you get through it. It’s an investment in yourself and in your family. Closing thought, I would say it’s an honor and a blessing from God for me to be where I am today. If you had asked me 10 or 20 years ago when I was starting my career, I really did not see myself being in this position. So, I really feel very honored. Now that I’ve seen it can be done, I want everyone to have the same satisfaction in the profession as I do. And that’s especially true with our last topic, regardless of your gender, race, religion, socio economic background, it’s possible. So, I’m just happy to support people however I can do it.
Article written by Marilyn Simpson; transcribed & edited by Cynthia Perez.
Be sure to keep your eye for our next Share your Story interview with Olga Jacobs.
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