A CEO’s Perspective: A Conversation with Brian Duperreault

For my President’s Message columns, I will be talking to distinguished actuaries who embody the new Envisioned Future for the CAS. Videos of these interviews will be available as Web Exclusives on the Actuarial Review website and the CAS YouTube channel. 

 

When Brian Duperreault agreed to be interviewed on his experience being an actuary, a CEO and an industry titan, I was so excited that I ran over to the spare room where my husband works and hyperventilated for about five minutes, and then I texted all my actuarial friends to tell them the news. 

To sum up his incredible, almost 50-year career, Duperreault started as an actuarial trainee at AIG, moved on to become CEO of ACE, which was a 50-person insurer that he grew to a 9,000-strong insurer in 10 years. He was then CEO of Marsh, Hamilton and, most recently, AIG. Now he is AIG’s executive chairman. 

“The actuarial training was absolutely the best training that I could have gotten to be the CEO,” he said.

He shared his career advice as well as his candid thoughts on the industry and the profession. Following are six take-aways from the interview. I encourage you to see the full interview on the CAS YouTube channel or AR’s Web Exclusives page. 

1. “I always believe that actuaries who don’t really understand what’s going on in the company don’t have a chance of coming up with a good answer because the numbers don’t yield their secrets so easily. You really have to get underneath it; understand where they came from.”

To be a good actuary, you must go beyond the technical skills and understand the business from all angles — from claims to underwriting and beyond. “You can’t just sit by the screen … you have to go talk to people and ask them and truly be inquisitive,” he said.  He acknowledged that actuaries can be reluctant: “I think … we always worry about this separation … Can we truly be independent in our analysis but too close? But you have to walk that line because you can’t do the analysis unless you go close enough without going over the edge … If you want to look over the edge and see what’s going on, you got to get up to it.” 

2. “If you have aspirations to be more than an actuary, being an actuary is a good start.”

If you are a good actuary who understands the business from all angles, then you come to the table with a more holistic understanding of the business than anyone else. “The actuarial training was absolutely the best training that I could have gotten to be the CEO,” he said. 

3. “Take a stretch assignment … Take an assignment that you actually never thought you would do.”

In the beginning, Duperreault aspired to do a good job and perhaps one day get his boss’s job. Saying “yes” to more and more stretch assignments, like running the claims department, got him out of his comfort zone and developed him as a leader. 

4. “[As a leader] you have people who are doing that work for you. Your job is to get them to be good.”

To take on the stretch roles successfully, Duperreault said that building a great team and getting them all focused on the job is key — and keep building on your leadership skills from one stretch assignment to the next. “There’s leadership skills which are universal regardless of a team you’re leading, and those skill sets do translate. They do transfer,” he said. 

5. “The actuarial profession doesn’t have to be on this Earth. There is no God-given reason why you have to be here. So, you have to earn it, you know, and you earn it by continuing to be relevant.”

Duperreault was candid about his thoughts on the business and profession: “I just don’t think we’ve embraced as an industry that kind of predictive analytics that other industries have embraced.” He noted that there is a natural and understandable caution in our approach to innovation. “If it’s a reserve, you’ve got to certify it. Are we going to do that with what we know has worked and generally speaking is acceptable? … Or do we go out on a limb with something that isn’t?”   

Nevertheless, he urged the profession to continue innovating and reaching into other areas of science and taking what we think works best for us. 

6. “Would you rather be a data scientist getting people to put more ads on some site or would you rather solve world problems?”

Attracting diverse talent into the industry is something that Duperreault is passionate about. “When I recruited in college, I never told them that I was in the insurance business,” he said, “I told them I was a professional gambler, which always got their attention.”  

“There are a lot of similarities for taking risk … Think about what you have to do to do it right — you’ve got to be a psychologist; you have to understand people; you have to be numeric; you have to have an insatiable interest on how things work in the world … It’s so much fun!” And it’s also purposeful, with the goal of helping the world through difficult situations.  

Brian Duperreault has shown what is possible when you start on an actuarial career path. When I reflect on his career and his advice, it puts my own work challenges into perspective, and it encourages me to do more to understand the business and step out of my comfort zone. I’d like to hear from you. What did you take away from this conversation with Brian? Please send me at note at ar@casact.org.

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About Jessica Leong

Jessica Leong, FCAS, is president-elect of the CAS. She is a lead data scientist at Zurich North America.

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