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Pioneers: Something You Can Use

Pioneers: Something You Can Use
by Jacque Kirkwood

Phil Gold is Fascinated with Technology and He Takes Every Opportunity to Make it Work Better for Others!

Phil Gold, FIA, ASA, MAAA, loves technology, especially computers. With his partners (Dave Gilliland and Bill Young) at GGY, he devotes most of his efforts to automating the mechanical processes of actuarial work so actuaries can be more productive. He's worked for Hill Samuel Life, Abbey Life, Manulife and National Reinsurance Company of Canada, but has found his real niche as founder of his own company, "with the help of my friends Dave and Bill of course," as he is quick to add.

The Actuary recently talked with Phil (current chair of the SOA's Technology Section) about his desire to improve the quality of other people's jobs, his innovations and the importance of working with a good team.

Members of the Actuary of the Future Section have sung your praises stating that you have been successful in revolutionizing technology and changing the way actuaries conduct business. How so? My approach has been to automate the steps that actuaries take in doing their work. I'm not trying to invent a new science here. I just want to provide actuaries with software that will help them implement all the latest techniques, all the reserve methods, tax rules and asset liability management algorithms so they can spend their time thinking about the problems and working on the solutions instead of programming.

What particular techniques have you developed to automate the mechanical process of actuarial work? Through my work, and the work of my colleagues, we have made it possible for actuaries to produce higher quality work–in a shorter timeframe–by providing a fast and accurate tool that keeps up to date with the ever-changing requirements. This tool is used by life insurance companies, reinsurers, consultants and also by regulators in the development of new regulations and requirements. The innovations I have introduced are mostly in the area of minimizing the amount of user intervention and time required between the start and end of a project. These include fail-safe automated conversions, code optimizations, powerful solve algorithms, applications of parallel and grid computing and the integration of seriatim processing into total company stochastic modeling.

How did GGY get started? The software began to get a life of its own in the 1980s while I was working at National Reinsurance, part of the Sodarcan group. The reinsurance company's clients really liked this program. I could bring it with me on my laptop and help them develop and price their own products, complete with reinsurance, in minutes. They started asking me if they could buy the software from us, so I approached the president and asked if we could sell it. He was prepared to do that to a limited extent, but it really wasn't part of the business plan. As time passed there was more and more demand so I approached him again with the idea of starting a new business.

We investigated working through one of the companies in the Sodarcan organization or starting a new subsidiary. But in the end, it worked best if I would buy the rights for the software from Sodarcan and set up an independent company.

I knew I needed both marketing and actuarial skills to complete the picture and I found a very able marketer in Bill Young and a very strong technical actuary in Dave Gilliland. The three of us pooled our money and our futures together into the new venture. Hence GGY (Gilliland Gold Young) was born in 1989.For the first couple of years Bill and Dave spent a significant portion of their time doing actuarial consulting, but the demand for the software was such that after a while we decided to cut out all the consulting and devote ourselves full-time to our new software–AXIS.

How many employees work at GGY? Today, we're nearly 50 strong and there's been steady growth, with two or three additions every year. The wonderful thing is that people generally don't tend to leave GGY–it's a good environment and the work is challenging. There's always something new, both on the computer side and the actuarial side and we have a lot of fun working with our clients.

My approach is to try to hire only people who are smarter than me, people who can do things that we are not already capable of doing. The team we have in place is a joy to work with. Nobody can know everything in this software business because it's multi-faceted. People here are knowledgeable, creative and hard working. But most importantly, we work on things together. We learn from each other. We laugh together. We work in tandem until we find the right solutions for our clients. It's the ideal atmosphere. It's hard work and it's fun!

What fascinates you most about business in general? There's always something new. The fact that business is ever changing, that you can never get where you're aiming to go keeps things fresh and exciting. I spend a lot of my time making sure that I'm bang up to date in the computer science area so that I can give my clients the best advice possible. I'm fascinated with technology and GGY gives me the opportunity to indulge that fascination.

You mentioned you lived in Israel on a Kibbutz. What were some of your most memorable experiences during that time? I actually moved to Israel in 1974 in the middle of the Yom Kippur War. The idea was to volunteer on a farm to cover the work that would have been done by the farmers who had been called up to fight in the war. I stayed for four years and during that time I taught high school math, drove a tank and tended sheep. I was probably one of the world's worst ever math teachers since I had no formal training–not very good on discipline either–but very good on instilling in my students the importance of speaking their minds and trying new things. We learned quite a bit together.

My main occupation was as a shepherd and that was a wonderful experience. The Kibbutz was near Nazareth in the north of Israel. I would take a flock of six or seven hundred sheep out to pasture. The only thing you really had to know was how to lead the sheep in the right direction and catch the stragglers. I enjoyed it immensely. I had a little transistor radio with me so I could listen to the BBC and just run around on the hills of Galilee. It's a very beautiful area and I was completely at one with nature. It was quite meaningful for me, doing something that my ancestors might have done two or three thousand years ago (OK, so they didn't have radios).

Tell me about the Foster Parents Plan at GGY. It's a charity that I personally contribute to because it's non–denominational and does wonderful work. It operates all over the world wherever children are in need and it gives them the tools and education to survive by themselves. When we started GGY, one of the first things we discussed was how to share our success and so we said, OK, let's sponsor one child for every employee. We did that and now 17 years later we have around 50 children that we are supporting around the world.

Are you enjoying your post as chair of the Technology Section? Oh yes. This is a lot of fun. Last year we surveyed the members and found out what they wanted and we picked just the top two or three priorities from that list and we concentrated this year on doing those things. Our most important focus has been on communication, so we decided to publish the newsletter four times a year instead of just once. We're also planning a number of interesting sessions at the annual meeting in Chicago.

I understand you have a second career as a journalist. How so? Music has always been very important to me. My brother works as a reviewer for several music magazines in the United Kingdom. I volunteered to write a few reviews for an Internet magazine and now I can get as much work as I like. I even get paid! I have all sorts of exotic equipment passing through the house and people send me $70,000 speakers and $1,000 earphones and all sorts of cool stuff. I write about classical, jazz and folk music too. I love it all; it's in my blood.

How has your background as an actuary impacted your career? My actuarial experience has enabled me to understand what the clients are going to use the software for and how they're going to view it. I can put myself in a client's position and intuitively know what he or she needs in the way of software, processes or technical advice in general. My background as a pricing actuary has given me a very good perspective for making that user interface work, concentrating on the important things like the speed of processing and stochastic functionality.

Is there any one particular business achievement that will always stand out in your memory? We've built two communities over the years and I'm very proud to have played a part in developing both of them.

The first is the group of people who work or have ever worked for GGY. We probably have one of the larger actuarial shops in Canada and even North America. I'm thrilled to be working with the people here. They are a very intelligent bunch and it's truly a pleasure to be part of that team and to see it growing and developing over the years. We've had weddings to celebrate and kids to bounce on our knees at the annual picnics.

The second community is the much larger group of AXIS users all over the world. We speak to them regularly in training sessions, executive briefings, help desk calls, industry meetings and so on. I like to think we treat them all very well and they certainly treat us very well. A lot of business relationships and personal friendships have blossomed over the years, and many people have landed good jobs as a result of their AXIS skills.

Would you like to share any words of wisdom for young and upcoming actuaries? Think outside the box. Don't just look at what jobs have been offered in the newspapers or on the bulletin boards. Plan your own career. Decide what you would like to do and go for it. It's the only way you're really going to be happy. I think I did that, particularly in selecting Bill and Dave to be my partners. It was very much like going into a marriage. You look for the right qualities in a wife and you look for the right qualities in a business partner, and we've managed to stay together for 17 years–that's quite an accomplishment as I see it.

How did your family factor into your success? My wife and children have always been very supportive, and my son has worked in the office for several years, while my daughter will join us this summer. There was a big risk, obviously, when I started in this business. I could have stayed at National Reinsurance as a vice president and been promoted up along the ranks, that was the safe option. As an actuary, I felt I could afford to take a risk with GGY and my wife encouraged me to go for it. It's great to have the support of the people you love; it makes the rough patches easier to get through.

How do you want people to remember you? I'd like them to say, "How did he do so much with so little?" I hope they remember the passion I bring to all my activities, and recall one or two of my terrible jokes or songs. And like most people, I'd like to think I make a difference in the lives of those who know me.

Phil Gold can be reached at pg@ggy.com.

Jacque Kirkwood is senior communications associate for the Society of Actuaries. She can be reached at jkirkwood@soa.org.