Laymen assume, erroneously at times, that actuaries possess extraordinary skills and ability to crack some of the world's daunting mathematical problems.
Standard Life (Asia) Ltd senior actuarial manager Raymond Leung says that actuarial work may appear intimidating to many, but it is not much different from other types of professional work despite its technical nature.
Traditionally, actuaries work for insurance, reinsurance and consulting firms, and are involved in product development or undertaking valuations of insurance policies to ensure sufficient assets to meet all policyholder claims and obligations. Following significant changes in the insurance industry, actuaries now also advise on risk management aspects.
"Today, even investment banks require the services of actuaries," Mr Leung says. "The role we play is different from that of our accounting counterparts who may focus more on financial reporting, audit and client servicing. However, the two professions have some similarity in the sense that both have their strategic elements."
Numerical skills are fundamental but the nature of the job becomes less routine and more strategic when an actuary moves up the ranks. "The focus shifts from identifying the root of problems and more into formulating solutions," Mr Leung notes.
Mr Leung recalls being torn between accounting and actuarial science when it came to the choice of university studies. "The latter was more popular then, and the nature and score of work also attracted me more," he says.
During his study in Australia, he was simultaneously looking for experience beyond the textbooks so every summer he flew back to Hong Kong and immersed himself in internship stints with reputable insurance firms. "My early exposure to the world of insurance helped me confirm my career aspirations," he states.
In 2001, Mr Leung embarked on an actuarial career, starting as an actuarial assistant at Switzerland-based Winterthur Life. In five years, he moved up the ranks and became an assistant manager. "Initially, I performed an analyst's role, reporting to the management of the local and head offices," he notes.
Soon after, the scope of his responsibility was expanded and it included product development and product design, with work often required to be completed under tight deadlines. "Back then, designing and launching a product would take as short as two months. Work in those days could not be any tougher, but I derived a great sense of achievement," he says.
He later moved on as project leader for product development, leading a diverse team comprised of colleagues from the marketing, finance, operations, sales and IT departments. He says, "That assignment honed my interpersonal skills as I liaised with colleagues from different departments, balancing their views and needs for the company's benefits."
"What you dream of may not happen overnight"
As he accumulated knowledge and expertise in different functions in an insurance company, he steadily moved up the corporate ladder. Three years ago, he moved to Standard Life (Asia).
Mr Leung's current position involves leading and overseeing the operation of his own actuarial team which helps assess and minimise potential risks for the company, alongside more "traditional" responsibilities like valuation and product development. He reports directly to the appointed actuary. "To assist my superior in making sound decisions, I often offer him several options with a clear explanation of the merits of each," he says.
He stresses that the environment in which actuaries operate change rapidly and it is therefore essential for even the most competent professionals to keep up-to-date with new rules and guidelines in the industry.
Effective communication skills, the ability to work in a team and a keen sense of responsibility are crucial. People interested in entering the industry may wish to take this issue into account, as well as their personal interests, before committing to a long-term career.
After passing actuarial examinations, Mr Leung recently became a fellowship member of the esteemed Society of Actuaries (FSA).
"Working and studying at the same time to become an FSA fellow was not easy. But, all you have to do is to exert ample efforts and the rewards will soon follow," he says.
The internationally recognised FSA qualification opens opportunities to enter the global actuarial industry. Mr Leung also points out that while China is still developing its own national professional examinations for actuaries, Hong Kong actuary practitioners can well expect competition to emerge.
Since it is universal practice for most insurance companies to have only one appointed actuary, the person in the job therefore plays a vital role as he or she takes responsibility for safeguarding the company's assets and liabilities, and contributing to its growth and sustainability. "An actuary is expected to possess professional exposure across the whole business spectrum of the company," he adds.
Looking ahead, Mr Leung looks forward to achieving more milestones in his actuarial career. "What you dream of may not happen overnight, but continuous learning will always pay dividends," he says.