Vince Bodnar - Partner and Long-Term Care Practice Leader, Oliver Wyman

Vince Bodnar - Partner and Long-Term Care Practice Leader, Oliver Wyman

March 23, 2021

How long have you worked as an actuary?

I have been working as an actuary since 1984, so 37 years this year. The beginning part of my career was quite unorthodox; I didn’t go to college, I took a job that happened to be in an actuarial department in an insurance company during my year off between high school and college. I started asking what the guys there were doing and fell in love with what they did, and just studied for and took the exams on my own. I wouldn’t recommend anyone else try and teach themselves calculus and probability, I strongly recommend going to college for that. 

Which markets have you worked in as an actuary?

I am primarily focused on long term care insurance, and that’s what I’m known for. I have worked with life, health, and medical insurance as well. Geographically it’s mostly been here in the US, but I’ve also spent some time in the far-East, so China and Japan, as well as in the UK exploring their long term care markets. 

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

One that I don’t already have? The ability to stop time so that I could get everything done that I need to. 

What do you see as key characteristics of innovative actuaries?

It’s an interesting question, I think curiosity and the ability to speak and work with people who are not actuaries. Being able to get out of your shell and understand what non-actuaries do, particularly in fields that impact what we study. 

What factors do you believe influence the impact actuaries can have within their organizations?

I think the most important thing that results in impact is just the ability to communicate. Actuaries are always dealing with complex issues and insights, and so how do we take all the things in our brains that we understand really well, the math and the holistic view of the business, and present those insights in a way that non-actuaries can understand? If you can do this simplistically and confidently, then you’ll be able to have a big impact. That usually results in getting leadership positions and other influential opportunities. 

What are some key ways you see the actuarial profession evolving in the next few years?

I think in the next few years, we’re going to see a continuing trend of us being a global community. I think actuaries tended to mostly think locally, sometimes with blinders on, but as the world is getting smaller and more diverse, it’s influencing the way we think and solve problems. Sharing the way different cultures and fields think about things has been very helpful to the actuarial community and I see that continuing going forwards.  

Despite there being significant collaborative potential between data science and actuarial science, the two expert fields don’t always mesh in insurance. How do you believe they can work together more successfully?

What they do is almost the same. Not quite, but almost. I think what data scientists bring is just a new way of looking at data and applying new, powerful tools to the data that actuaries are aware of, but may not be using enough. But actuaries understand all the intricacies and nuances of insurance, which can be a foreign concept for data scientists. So instead of trying to do each other's jobs, I think they should work together more collaboratively and understand where the overlap is.

Where I’ve seen that happen successfully it’s been very, very powerful. I think actuaries initially stiffen their backs and may feel threatened by data scientists, and I think they should let their guard down a bit more. If we can work together we can leverage each other’s strengths. 

What makes innovation impactful? 

So I’ve been working in the innovation area for quite some time, maybe fifteen years, trying to get the long term care insurance industry to think more creatively about the products it produces and also long term care delivery. How do we use innovation to provide more care to more people? There’s a lot of great ideas out there, I’ve been in countless think tanks where people come out with really creative ideas that seem to be viable.

Where things stop, and where I think we need to do a better job as an industry, is having the courage to actually try some things and fail fast. With this approach, we can ask ourselves why it didn’t work, adjust it, and then try again. That’s a real barrier today, particularly in the insurance field where things move kind of slow and evolve slowly as well. 

So you can either do this ‘fast fail’ approach, which is really difficult to do in a big organization, or you can understand that innovation is just pointing the way to where we ultimately have to go. We might not get there tomorrow, we might not get there next year, but we can use innovation to define that end state and figure out what the next step is towards that, which also takes innovation. We need to break out of the momentum that we currently have.

For product development, for example, you can think of a very creative product, but it’s just too hard to launch something very new quickly. So what can you do to take an existing product, start to configure it to look more like its end state, and launch it with that next innovative feature in it? So instead of trying to create an entirely new thing, take what you have and slowly evolve it over time. This takes innovation too. I think we need to be innovative about how we are applying innovation. But I think this is happening, this is where I’ve seen it work and be impactful. 

What are some of the more impactful innovations in the actuarial field and why?

I think certainly the software we’re using today is incredibly powerful. Years ago, the things we wanted to model but couldn’t, it was a real struggle. We had to come up with simplifying assumptions and simplifying methods to model things that we just didn’t have the software to model. Some of the commercial software that has been developed to help actuaries is really top notch. It’s not the computing power, though that has improved as well, it’s mostly people being really innovative about how to program some things that we used to have to do in a more simple way. 

It’s really become interesting because with these new innovations and softwares we are able to model things that we couldn’t model before. It’s giving us insights about our business that we didn’t have before. I would say that’s the single most important thing in the past five years and I think we’re going to keep seeing that moving forwards. 

Having the right tools to do your job unleashes more innovation. Now you can spend less time doing programming and more time thinking about how you can use these tools to model. 

What is the best type of change actuaries can adopt to become more influential in the insurance industry?

Communication skills. I’ve always suggested to young actuaries that they take a course in English. So if you’re still in college, take some English courses, take some writing courses, communication skills are very important. 

The other thing is expanding who you interact with. If you’re working at an insurance company, spend some time with the people in the claims department, in the customer service department, etc. Understand what they go through. And I think the more you understand all of the facets of the company and the business, the more you see how everything stitches together as an actuary and become more impactful.

One of my favorite mentors told me: seek to understand the stories behind the numbers. A number is just a number until you understand what it represents and what led to that number occurring. So understand that, and then you can tell the story to leadership and people who are not actuaries.

What advice would you give someone considering an actuarial career today?

Make sure this is something that you actually love. You have to love math, it has to be your passion. If it’s not, don’t enter the field. If it is, great, but understand that everyone else in the field is also really, really good at math. So find some things that can round out your skillset. I can’t harp enough about communication skills. 

Also, challenge yourself. Brush up your critical thinking skills. One of the things I’m seeing with a lot of the new actuaries today is that they’re waiting to be trained. They’re waiting to be taught and told what to do. That’s all fine, but don’t be afraid to jump outside of that and teach yourself some things. Be aggressive in that manner. Figure out what the next thing you need to learn is and teach it to yourself. Don’t wait to be taught. If you can do that, you’re going to be a very successful actuary and businessperson in general. Don’t wait for your career to happen. Figure out what you want and what that next step is and take it.