Today marks 20 years since we started Actuarial Solutions Inc. It has been a great ride and I can honestly say that I had no idea we would end up here when we started. The original business plan, scratched together on Easter weekend in 1998, was one-page long and presented a long-term vision of Paula, Ivana, and me working together in a boutique firm focused on high quality work with outstanding customer service. It’s true that we didn’t know Ivana back then but there was a spot for someone like her on the business plan.
As time passed, we found great clients that appreciated our approach which ultimately led to needing some great employees to help us do the work, which led to my needing to find more clients to keep everyone busy. This pattern has endured and we are now a team of eleven – more than my original three and still well short of the 19 team-member maximum I declared a few years ago thinking that any more than that and we would lose the team feeling that we enjoy.
It is tempting to let one’s ego think that they are entirely responsible for their success – and certainly a lifetime of school and hard work contributes to success – but I am very conscious of two other factors. First, there is some luck in success, meeting the right people at the right time. Second, there are people around you that contribute to your success and more broadly who you become.
In my mind, one of the most powerful qualities in life is gratitude. I don’t know why things have gone well for me – and I am sure there are times that outside observers wonder that too. As Waterloo professor Harry Davis said of me in second year: “how could someone who shows no sign of genius do so well on the exam”. I think Davis meant it as a compliment – but take it for all that it is.
In the end, and after lots of hard thinking, what I have come up with is that I have been fortunate to have a wonderful collection of individuals enter my life and decide for themselves that they wanted to contribute to who I have become. The remainder of this posting calls out some of the people that made a big impact on me over the last 50 or so years. Some were in my life for a short but concentrated time – others for the long haul, taking me on in smaller doses. A few have risen to the challenge of being with me every week for decades. The list is mostly to honor the people on the list and if you don’t have the time you have gained my message of the day – Gratitude.
In chronological order:
Mr. Olenych (1976) – you would have had a hard time convincing me when I was 10 that I would look back 40 years later and be grateful for my grade 5 teacher. The reality is that by grade 5 I was already in with the wrong crowd and since grade 5 was the end of the line for Elmcrest Public School, me and my friends were kings of the school. Somehow, I think that Mr. Olenych saw my potential and saw the questionable path my friends and I were travelling. I was taken out of the classroom and sent to work in the library with other academically accomplished grade 5s (girls). For the first time in my life I was motivated to be successful academically.
Mr. William Smeaton (1981) – Bill Smeaton taught electrical in the shops – notwithstanding the efforts of Mr. Olenych, grades 6 to 8 saw me return to my old friendships and my old habits. Notwithstanding the dreams of my parents I didn’t think there would be University in my future. I loved the shops and in grade 9 I took every possible elective; woodworking, machine shop, and automotive. Grade 10 brought electrical work and by grade 12 I was sure I was going to be an electrician. The logic puzzles of wiring switches, motors and lights with the hands-on building of the wires and metal boxes turned hours into minutes. Mr. Smeaton saw all my potential to be a good electrician and inspired me to be good at my work instead of accepting ‘good enough’.
Mrs. Paula Latimer (1981) – Mrs. Latimer taught math and was the only teacher in high school to give me detentions. Unforgiving in her expectation that you could get perfect on a math test, she constantly sent me home with 9 out of 10 and a frustration that she was just too tough. We met again in grade 12 and it took until the second last test of the year for me to get perfect – to which she replied, “it’s about time”. Crazy the stories you remember as time passes. I never found out if it was Mrs. Latimer but someone from the math department went to see Bill Smeaton to tell him I was good enough at math that I should be going to University. I would have had none of that idea if it weren’t for the fact that I admired Smeaton so much and when he said I should go to University I went home to my parents to say I would give it a try.
Basil Harmer (1981) – Basil was my best friend Rich’s dad. I met Rich in kindergarten and we played a lot of soccer in grade 5 before going our separate ways for a while and reconnecting in high school. But the turning point was in grade 10 when Mr. Harmer asked me and Rich (also accomplished in electrical) to help him with an industrial building he had purchased as an investment. We would go down at night and work away running wires, working on old cars, and once running gas lines (which seemed risky to me). Basil had a ‘we can do this attitude’ that I had never seen before and an ability to get lost in his work until his wife called to remind him that the boys had school the next day. I didn’t know it then, but Basil was 1/3 of the catalyst to my entrepreneurial future.
Dennis & Elaine Bell (1982) – Denis and Elaine lived across the street from me. I baby sat for their kids Tyler and Krista once when they were in a bind (who asks a misdirected boy to babysit?). In 1982 Dennis left his safe job as a manager at TD Bank and bought the Glen Orchard General Store. In need of someone they could trust with lots of cash at the gas pumps – they asked me if I wanted to spend the summer in Muskoka. It wasn’t a hard decision to say yes and lots of growing up happened that summer away from home and I ended up back there after high school ended for one more summer before heading to Waterloo. Dennis was the consummate ‘what are we working on next’ guy and Elaine was the quieter voice of reason when Dennis got too far out ahead. We lost Elaine several years ago to cancer. I had breakfast with Dennis last summer and he is still buying properties to fix up and keeping busy – no sitting still even though he is past age 70. I didn’t know it then, but Dennis and Elaine were the second 1/3 of my entrepreneurial drive and THE role models for how you could be in business together with your spouse.
Adrian Cristal (1982) – As I started grade 11, some of the guys had gotten jobs at the local golf course. They asked me if I needed a job – I said sure – and before I knew it I was making some cash working after school and on weekends as a busboy. Adrian was the Maître d’ at the Mississaugua Golf & Country Club (yes the spelling is correct). Adrian ran the dining room as if anything less than perfection was unacceptable – but not in a mean way – in a way that honored the members that had entrusted him with their dining for the evening. I was eventually assigned to weddings and although I didn’t realize it at the time it was a role reserved for workers that could grasp Adrian’s vision of excellence. Again, I didn’t realize it then, but Adrian was the final 1/3 of my entrepreneurial future.
Lorne Cohen (1987) – I have the same Frank Reynolds story that about 80% of the male actuarial science grads from Waterloo have (being told you might not have what it takes to make it) and Howard Slaney was an insurance actuary that taught ‘the theory of interest’ for fun and inspired a ‘don’t give up until you find the answer’ attitude in me. These guys deserve honorable mention. But it was Lorne who picked me out of the co-op program to work at Mercer that completely changed the trajectory of my life. My plan by second year was to one day be a VP at Sun Life (I visualized an important job but not the top job). I was too stunned to realize that you don’t say that on your resume as a career goal unless you are sending the resume to Sun Life. I wish I had a copy so we could all laugh at my ignorance. Lorne made me the actuary that I am today – like so many in the story to this point, Lorne was driven by excellence. Lorne made pensions interesting and had the tenacity to fight through the complexity to the solution that would evade those unwilling to spend the time.
Ken Hugessen (1987) – When I arrived at Mercer, Ken was the office head and my bosses’ boss. Nonetheless, Ian Genno who was tasked with taking me around the office introduced me to Ken and it didn’t take much more than ten seconds for me to make an impression that I was different. I wasn’t trying to be different – I just was different – and ironically, I didn’t really know it. Ken was different too – many actuaries were reserved and cautious. Ken walked quickly and talked confidently – if you didn’t know him you might think he was arrogant – but to me he was where I wanted to end up. The record is clear that I was not a good student and as I struggled with actuarial exams I wanted to quit. I talked to Ken about giving up and he told a story around his friend Bernard who had some struggles with exams but having put that behind him was sailing ahead in a great career. Ken advised that “the actuarial exams will be the most intellectually unfulfilling thing that you do – but you just have to get it done”. I eventually did.
Bill Chinery (1987) – Bill was the boss in-between Lorne and Ken. By 1988, Bill had taken over from Ken as the office head. By the fall of 1988 I was back at Waterloo in third year – I hated it – at least the school part, my friends were great and several are still friends today. After a week of classes, and knowing that I had finished the first five actuarial exams that school was allegedly preparing me to complete, I called Bill and asked if I could quit school and have a full-time job. Bill said he would be happy to give me a job but insisted that I needed to get a degree in case the actuary thing didn’t work out. I did the minimum to get my BMath and started my career at Mercer the last week of 1988. For years to follow there were many at Mercer that didn’t think I fit the mold and as I struggled to pass the second half of the exams there was mounting evidence that they were right. Bill would have none of it and protected my employment status while I struggled to find my way. Bill’s line was “he has the horsepower – we just need to find a way to harness it”. Bill left Mercer around 1994 and I didn’t last much longer.
Malcolm Hamilton (1988) – It might have been 1989 when I met Malcolm – all I know is it was a Mercer Christmas party and one of us had had a few drinks before we started debating something about pensions. Malcolm is widely considered one of Canada’s best actuaries of all time. Notwithstanding Bill Chinery’s belief in me, I don’t have the horsepower to keep up with Malcolm. But for whatever reason, for close to 30 years Malcolm has accepted my calls and my invites to lunch where I have continued to pick his brain to piece together how everything works. In recent years he had reviewed some of my writing to make sure that I am not saying something technically incorrect. I recently asked Malcolm why he continues to spend time with me – he claims it is because of my curiosity – I think it might be because I pay for lunch. Malcolm’s secret to success is to be prepared with more facts on a subject than his opponent. I have started to become successful in expert evidence because I have stolen Malcolm’s playbook.
Jerry Crowder (1995) – Nelson B. Crowder was an insurance broker based in Scarborough. Somehow, Jerry found me just as I was coming to see that the lifetime career at Mercer that I had envisioned was not going to be the reality. Dudley Funnel was working for Jerry part-time helping with defined benefit plans for their clients. Dudley was ready to ‘retire’ and Jerry was ready to take the leap on a full-time actuarial student that would grow into an actuary in a year or so as Dudley phased out. I wasn’t getting through my exams and for all sorts of reasons (including the fact Mercer didn’t want me anymore) I made the change. Jerry was a salesman – and a really good one. Jerry spent the next three years trying to get me to think like a client – what did the client want to know not what did I want to tell the client. Jerry helped me think about the visual appearance of a report – it didn’t matter that the numbers were all there – it mattered that the non-actuary reader could keep up with the message.
Robert Keedwell (1995) – Robert worked for Jerry Crowder. Robert was the genius behind all the systems including all the actuarial software. Not an actuary by training, Robert was as good as any actuarial programmer of my era. The big moment for me was when I failed yet another actuarial exam. Robert was perplexed. I clearly knew the material but I didn’t seem to get the answers onto paper during the exams. Robert had me bring in some sample exams and we both did them at the same time. He did no studying and his answers were better than mine. He was a master at writing exams and taught me how understand the questions being asked and to structure a response before jumping right in. It is hard to know if I would have become an actuary without Robert – but we know for sure it would have taken a lot longer.
Tony Taylor (1996) – Tony was the President for a client that we earned the year after I arrived at the Crowder Group. I didn’t have a lot of interaction with Tony and he found himself retired by 1998. But when Tony found out that I went out on my own, he reached out and we had lunch. His first question was “what are you doing to get new clients?”. I had an answer – I was making cold calls. Tony and I got together several times a year for a while and it was always the same question. He never let me forget that you can never stop looking for new work. If you had to look for work during the day and do the work nights and weekends then that is what you had to do. It’s hard to imagine where I would be without Tony constantly reinforcing his message until it was ingrained.
David Krieger (1998) – David and I found each other a few months after I started ASI. It seemed like Krieger + Associates was the firm I was looking for and just hadn’t found in time. For 16 weeks I suspended my pursuit of my vision and signed onto David’s vision. Hard to put in words my experience with David – but safe to say he made me the consultant I am today. He took my technically accurate (Cohen) and nicely presented (Crowder) reports and pushed me to think hard about how to organize the message. What was the story we were telling? David’s most important statement: “Imagine your report is in front of the Board of Directors and you are not there to explain it”. The other side of David, he was what Karen Vary would call a ‘driven entrepreneur’. I had no idea how to let passion and deadlines merge into 12-hour days – David showed me.
Tim Graham (1999) – in 1999 Tim was a practicing corporate lawyer in Windsor. One of his clients needed help with some M&A work and he had seen my work in the files of a business his client acquired, so he reached out to ask me to help. I am not sure why he picked a one-man shop in Oakville Ontario but that call started me on the road to many assignments and what, as of today, is the client that has spent more on our help than any other. I had lunch with Tim on Friday and I thanked him for everything – he thanked me and insisted on paying for lunch. Great clients are hard to come by – I am lucky to have found more than my share.
Robert Tamblyn (2002) – I can’t really tell this whole story – just too long. In 2002, I resigned myself that it was going to be hard to ‘sell’ DB plan sponsors on working with a two-person shop and we would either have to call it quits or accept lean times forever. I voted for the latter and my partner Paula voted with me. In exchange we decided to move to Windsor where she was born and for which I had grown fond over the years. Housing was less expensive and we would have help with the kids. As random as it sounds – I moved across the street from Rob Tamblyn who was a local pension and benefits consultant. A week after I moved in, Rob asked me to help one of his clients (Jim Campbell). Jim said something nice to Rob about the work we had done and the flood gates opened. Every chance he could, Rob referred work to us. Beyond the work, Rob became a mentor in work and in family life and a foe on the golf course. I have told my children more than once that it is not possible to know where we would be today if we had never met Rob.
Ruford Qi (2004) – Ruford was our first employee. A graduate from Waterloo, Ruford already had a degree from China as well as a wife and a daughter. ASI was continuing to grow and I just couldn’t keep up any longer. I had interviewed several Waterloo graduates and Ruford was the best. Worried that we might run out of work and need to let him go, I still couldn’t pull the trigger. My friend Claude Marchessault said “you need help – he needs a job. So if you run out of work in a year then you got some help and he made some money and got a year of experience”. Shortly thereafter Ruford called to follow-up and said “I know I can do this job”. I will never forget that call and Ruford came on board. Ruford out grew us by 2007 and moved to the US but we remain friends am I am forever grateful that he invested his time building our next generation of systems and helping me leverage my time. Surely a win-win time for both of us.
Matthew Philbin (2005) – I met Matthew in 1992 at a golf tournament and saw him from time to time at social events in Windsor. Matt had no training in pension administration but all of our conversations left me impressed with his clear thinking. I suggested to Paula that she was going to need help because she now had to keep up with Ruford and not just me. Paula said ok, and Matt joined us in 2005 a year after Ruford. Matt is still with us today and I said hi to him this morning when we were both in for our usual Saturday shift. Matt has gone from working for Paula – to taking Paula’s job – to managing three people who now do Paula’s old job. His department faces the most deadline challenges and his passion for accuracy and commitment to clients is part of today’s success.
Jason Vary (2006) – It is hard to describe my relationship with Jason – one-part little brother, one-part business partner – Jason has taken the lead on being my internal sounding board and over time managing the entire practice. Paula and I still talk about the big decisions like hiring, but it is Jason that has been in all the conversations about clients, finances, marketing, etc. Jason took over as President this month. He was long ready to take the lead but I needed to find a way to let go. I know our clients love Jason and I know that I am lucky that he has decided to make ASI his home.
Dean Newell (2007) – When Ruford left us, he left a hole for someone to do the volumes of calculations that underpinned our reports. Dean was already an actuary (over qualified) but knew Jason from PwC and realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to switch teams and he had the humility to take a step back to ultimately take a step or two forward. It might be easy to stereotype Dean as just another actuary – like Jason. This is not the case – I always joke that I round to the nearest $100,000 and Jason rounds to the nearest $10,000. Dean doesn’t round. Dean sees number in rich detail the way a painter sees colours. I hope Dean has learned some things about consulting but I can also say that Dean has shown me a new world of actuarial science and excel spreadsheets.
Brad Martin (2011) – Brad is just a kid – for some it will be hard to see how he makes the list. Brad has been my personal trainer since 2011. I don’t like to go an entire week without seeing Brad no matter how much I travel and how busy I get. When I was young, some of the guys at work would go to the gym. I always said “how strong do you need to be to type?”. But as I rounded the corner on 45, I realized that my mobility was dismal and my weight and my heart were not where they needed to be. You might think it was obvious but it took the actuaries at Canada Life to not want to sell me life insurance to drive the point home. I still have a boatload of hours in the gym to get to where I need to be – but Brad has been there making the whole experience tolerable. I have told Brad that I have gone from ‘hating’ the gym, through ‘strongly dislike’ and all the way to ‘look forward to’ my time with him. It is still hard to go to the gym on my own – I was going to go this afternoon but instead voted to write this long message.
“You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!”
– Al Pacino in And Justice for All
Ferdinand and Ann Nunes (1966) – My dad was my hero – he was clever and he was a natural at math. From my first memories he was playing math games with me and as my skills increased so did the complexity of the game. I can’t imagine anyone played a more pivotal role in shaping the way my mind works. My mom is an artist, a philosopher, and a consumer of political drama. She made no sense to me as a child, youth or young adult. But in the last decade, as I have spent more time with her I have come to see all the sides of life that I missed being too narrow in my focus. I would like to think that she has played some part in my softening over the years.
Paula Nunes (1991) – Paula and I both worked at Mercer. We met in 1991, were engaged in 1992 and married in 1993. My friends were skeptical that this was going to work – I am intense and sometimes create conflict while Paula thrives on peace and harmony. But it works. I can’t explain it, but my most reasonable guess is that we bring out the best in each other and cover for the other’s weaknesses. There is no way ASI would exist in its current form and there is no way I would be the person I am today without Paula. More importantly, there is no way I would have the happy life and three terrific kids that we share if she didn’t say yes.
In the end, I am grateful for it all.