Pioneers: Serving Up The Numbers

Pioneers: Serving Up The Numbers
by Sam Phillips

Ron Gebhardtsbauer is the Senior Pension Fellow at the American Academy of Actuaries. Recently, Gebhardtsbauer told The Actuary about his career and how his passion for serving has lead it.

Please tell us your work history.

I always loved mathematics and got the math award at my high school, but upon graduating from Penn State with a math degree, I was young and full of dreams. It was the 70s and I wanted to go into the Peace Corps like my cousin. However, Acacia Mutual Life (where I worked the prior summer) offered me a job and promised to send me to Northeastern University in Boston to get a Master's degree. Even with that promise, I wasn't convinced, but I went to Acacia anyway. (My parents did the convincing.) I wasn't sure at the time that I had made the right decision, because I couldn't see myself working in business the rest of my life. Fortunately, I woke up one day in my 30s and realized that I had indeed chosen the right field for me. I found that being an actuary wasn't totally dominated by the business world (we are the academics in the business world); and that being an actuary wasn't totally a technical job (because in the course of solving technical problems, we also work with others to help people and society).

After a few years at Acacia, I became a pension consultant in the Washington, D.C. office of the Wyatt Company. I learned a great deal about creating an excellent product, but wanted to serve people more (due to my religious beliefs), so I became a civil servant in the federal government, and found it to be a very honorable calling. I first worked at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the federal employee retirement system, which had 5 million participants. Even the missing data problems were huge. We didn't have data on a quarter–million employees who were in submarines, the arctic, in parks putting out fires, abroad as spies, etc. This dwarfed the size of my pension plans in the private sector, and I had time to really think about how things should be without having to bill by the hour, or fill out timesheets! I was there in the early 80s when new federal hires were brought into Social Security, so I helped create their new retirement system to supplement Social Security. It was quite interesting, because we didn't have to follow all those pesky rules that Congress imposes on the private sector. The mind really expands when there are no rules.

The job where I grew the most would be the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. The PBGC makes sure that private sector workers and retirees get their DB pensions. I hadn't any management experience until then and was worried that I wouldn't be able to keep my secretary and two other employees busy. By the time I left, I had 50 employees and 50 contractors, and we had too much work, but I found that I loved being in management and working with people. When I arrived at PBGC, "programming" was performed on hand–held HP calculators and our answers were handwritten onto columnar paper. Fortunately, by 1990, my employees had automated PBGC's benefit processing work, so that we were able to take over the Pan Am and Eastern Airlines pension plans. My other job at PBGC was to sign off on the Annual Report's liability numbers as chief actuary, even though we couldn't pass an audit (because we didn't have adequate information on the bankrupt company pension plans that we had just taken over). Before I left, we got our first successful audit in the PBGC's 20–year existence.

In the mid-90s, I left PBGC to head up Mercer's NYC retirement practice, where we hired lots of great people, worked hard, had a great year financially and the morale was higher than ever (because we worked with the employees to remove the hurdles in front of them). I loved NYC and Mercer and my employees, but my heart was really in Washington, D.C., so I moved back to take my present job as Senior Pension Fellow at the American Academy of Actuaries.

My Academy job has me testifying before Congress, meeting with Con– gressional staff to improve pension policy, speaking on TV and radio, and supporting our pension committees. The job is theoretically part–time, so I have been able to do some contractual work with the governments of other countries like Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Viet Nam, and become more involved with organizations like the Board of the United Methodist Church's pension system (which we convinced to go back to having a DB plan). Unfortunately, I've been busier of late, because the world is heading in what I would call the wrong direction–one that increases risks to individuals, so we have much work cut out for us. As you may guess, being the Senior Pension Fellow at the Academy has been my dream job. Initially, I was concerned that my position would take the fun jobs away from our members, but that hasn't happened. In fact, I would say that our members are much more involved with the federal government than ever before. They have become a more visible presence in Washington, D.C. and in the media. I hope that I can continue to help the profession make a difference in these areas and I thank Academy members for letting me work at this interesting job.

What do you consider to be some of your greatest career accomplishments?

Speaking at the White House Conference on Social Security would definitely be one. I got a call from the White House the night before the event asking me to take over the moderator role from the President (because he had to leave early to go to the funeral of VP Gore's dad). The various parties in the debate agreed on me, because I was seen as the most neutral and knowledgeable person they could find. It followed a couple years of my speaking at Town Hall forums in every state of the union alongside members of Congress to help people understand Social Security.

I also enjoyed writing the SOA Study Note on the PBGC, while at the beach one summer. Writing it helped me realize that I was no longer the math nerd that couldn't write or talk, but that I could enjoy it. (I still have images of me playing Robert Redford's role when he is writing the great American novel at the beach in "The Way We Were.")

There is also a beautiful publication that I was very involved in that helps people decide whether they should get a pension or annuity. It is called "Making Your Money Last for a Lifetime: What You Need to Know about Annuities." It is distributed by WISER (Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement) in case you would like a copy.

What motivated you to pursue new directions–what were the attractions?

I already had a fair amount of experience working in the government, so going to the Academy actually re–involved me in a world that I was familiar with. Since I have a passion to serve others, to educate, to work with all kinds of people and to make a better world, it clearly fit into my life goals. It is important to find jobs that are right for you. Don't do something that everyone else is doing if it's not right for you, because you won't do as good a job as you could. The phrase is probably overdone, but a motto that I like is: "To thine own self be true."

What barriers did you encounter and how did you overcome them? What new skills did you have to learn?

I found that being in a position like this (where I testify and am on TV and radio a lot) forced me to learn more about how people see things in so many different ways. It forced me to grow and be careful of how and what I say, because it generally comes back to hit me when I'm not as careful as I need to be. I learned very quickly that I couldn't just say something without thinking about it in advance, which is not easy for intuitive ENFJ1 people like me. Much preparation is needed before speaking and writing.

What innovations have you made or introduced (beyond traditional techniques and practices)?

In the 1990s we created a pro bono actuary role in response to Congressional hearings on retirees with incorrect pension amounts. People who are confused about their pensions can now call the Academy and get a pro bono actuary assigned to them (for a maximum of four hours for free). Sometimes all it takes is an actuary to "hold their hand" and guide them through the maze. As you can imagine, we need more actuaries. If interested, please call the Academy at 202.223.8196 and ask for Kasha Shelton.

The pro bono idea has got me thinking more about the idea of the personal actuary, which I encourage more of you to try out. We already have most of the skills and knowledge to do the job, and it's a great way to help people.

My innovations are more in the area of explaining complex ideas simply through words and pictures that will be remembered and used again by others. For example, I created (a) charts that show how the new pension funding proposals increase the contribution for some employers, but decrease it for others, and (b) charts that show how price indexing would make Social Security benefits irrelevant as time progresses.

Ron Gebhardtsbauer can be contacted at

More Q&A with Ron Gebhardtsbauer can be obtained by sending an e-mail to