When it comes to career choice, the apple did not fall far from the tree in John Wylie's case. The chief executive officer of ING Hong Kong and Macau's insurance & pensions was lucky to have his actuary father as a mentor while he was still finding his feet in the business.
Mr Wylie, who was born in Perth, Western Australia, recalls that he decided early on to follow in his father's footsteps. It was obvious to him that his father was enjoying his job as CEO of an insurance company, and he knew that his numerical skills would always come in handy.
Today, an industry guru himself, he explains that an actuary's role consists of analysing risk, working out the cost of insuring it and designing suitable products and prices to cover it. While it may sound predominantly technical, common sense is crucial.
"People shouldn't lose sight of the basics and get carried away by numbers that come out of their computers. You should always scrutinise something that doesn't look right or sensible from the outset," he says.
Getting a head start
Mr Wylie kicked off his career as an intern with a big insurance company while completing his actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He then spent a few years on a management trainee programme, working in many different areas, from actuarial work to underwriting and investments.
During that time, he was particularly keen to pursue a sales assignment since his father had advised him to gain such experience. "Otherwise, the agents will never believe what you say," he quotes his father. He managed to do a stint with a team selling pensions to small businesses and found that the practical experience provided him with a valuable understanding of frontline operation.
Mr Wylie worked his way steadily upward, first becoming marketing manager and then state general manager, respectively for the firm's Victoria branch and New South Wales branch.
Having established himself in insurance, he wanted to try something new and so took the bold step of moving into the financial planning industry, which was in its infancy in Australia at the time. The firm he worked for was extremely successful and he recalls learning more in the two years after joining than in any other two-year period in his career.
After a few other jobs in financial planning and marketing, Mr Wylie was approached by ING Life Insurance in Australia in 1992 and offered the position of general manager. He has worked for the company ever since.
In 1997, he was faced with an exciting challenge: becoming CEO of ING Poland. This involved not only the challenge of building up a business in a post-communist state but also tough competition in the field. However, he quickly built up a good rapport with the employees and agents and moved quickly in terms of promotions and new initiatives, which gained him strong staff loyalty and outstanding results.
"A highly interactive business environment such as insurance requires good people skills," Mr Wylie says, adding that he finds the human contact extremely rewarding.
His management philosophy is to create an environment where people can excel. "Set clear priorities and give staff the necessary autonomy and flexibility to do the job," he remarks. When he left ING Poland some three years later, it was the third biggest insurance company in Poland and number one in new business.
"We can control change, or change can control us"
Although Mr and Mrs Wylie enjoyed their time in Poland thoroughly, they wanted to go home to their families in Australia, so when his contract ended they returned to Sydney where he became CEO of ING Australia.
While many people would see this as the pinnacle of their career, Mr Wylie was still keen for new challenges. His Polish experience had given him a taste of working overseas and so in 2003 he moved to Hong Kong and became regional general manager, ING Asia Pacific, initially responsible for the markets in Japan, Korea and Thailand.
Three years later, he took charge of the company's life business in Taiwan, where he succeeded in revitalising staff morale and doubling the amount of new business. Earlier this year, he came back to Hong Kong and took up his current role.
Life insurance offers a wide range of excellent career prospects, including in sales, marketing, IT and finance, Mr Wylie points out. Since companies are often judged on the service they provide in areas like underwriting or handling claims, good customer service is essential.
He stresses that to reach a top position in insurance the most important thing is to understand people and what motivates them. "You don't get to be CEO of a business unless you really enjoy a challenge," he adds.
The insurance industry remains strong, with life insurance being the most popular long-term savings avenue and areas such as risk cover and financial planning steadily growing. However, change is on the way.
In particular, he envisages stricter industry regulations in Hong Kong and emphasises that the local insurance sector will have to raise its professional standards. "ING is already preparing for this through staff development and talent acquisition," he says. "We can control change, or change can control us. The first option is a lot less painful."