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More Than Money

More than money

Steve Vernon helps people make sure they have the happiest, healthiest retirement possible.
Sam Phillips

Steve Vernon, FSA, MAAA, is passionate about his mission in life: helping people "live long and prosper" in every sense of the words–financially, emotionally and with respect to their health. "Older Americans face significant challenges–we need to manage our financial resources to last the rest of our lives, and enhance our well-being so we enjoy our later years and don't get wiped out by medical bills," says Vernon. His contribution to society is to use his actuarial expertise and communication skills to help the baby boom generation face these challenges.

Have you expanded the frontiers of actuarial practice? If so, how? What innovations have you made or introduced? I'm using my actuarial skills to help people best live the rest of their lives. Our financial institutions have developed many simple, effective products and solutions. I can make a difference by helping people understand and use them, through innovative communications. I devise solutions that are realistic for most Americans, by integrating financial and non-financial strategies. Here are two examples of this:

  • Conventional financial advice on adequate retirement income recommends replacement ratios of 70 percent to 100 percent of pre-retirement pay. Unfortunately, most Americans won't have adequate financial resources in retirement to generate this level of income. So, instead of getting frustrated and depressed, trying to generate an unrealistic level of financial resources, let's focus on what most people really want for their later years–to be happy and fulfilled. How much money do you need for that? And can you work a little during retirement and still be happy and fulfilled?
  • For most people, the best ways to man- age ruinous medical and long-term care costs are to get serious about diet, exercise and reducing stress, develop a supportive network of family and friends and buy a catastrophic medical insurance policy.

What motivated you to pursue new directions? I had a successful 30-plus year career as a conventional consulting actuary, working for Watson Wyatt Worldwide. I could declare victory and go home. My kids are successfully launched in life, and are mostly off the payroll, so my expenses reduced dramatically. Time to launch a new phase in my life. I want to help people.

What part of a start-up business is the most satisfying and/or challenging? You can't beat getting immediate, face-to-face, sincere feedback from people who say that you made a difference in their lives.

How does your company stand out from others like it? I have no vested interest in current products, solutions and techniques. I'm willing to experiment with new forms of communication and new ways to achieve personal and financial security.

What new skills have you recently had to learn and how did you learn them? When you're on your own, you must be your own personal assistant, IT support staff, janitor, CFO, fulfillment department, billings and collections department, sales and marketing staff. It was immediate OJT.

What are the three things an actuary should do if he or she wants to start their own business?

  1. Be real clear about what you want to accomplish. Is it making money? Help make a better world? Be your own boss?
  2. Be realistic about what you can accomplish on your own. I no longer have a team of people who work on my projects, so I can't promise as much as I did when I was working for a large consulting firm.
  3. Network, network, network.

What has been your biggest challenge/most memorable achievement both on and off the job? Conducting retirement workshops for employees of AARP. I'm preaching to the choir, so I've got to be good. Plus, they have great people, fascinating insights and substantial research capabilities.

How do you measure success? To what do you attribute your success? How does your background as an actuary figure into the equation? Am I having fun? Am I making a difference in people's lives? The money is not even first or second–it's just a tool to support what I want to accomplish. The most important things in life can't be measured with numbers. Am I doing a 52.6 percent better job in helping people? Am I having 25.8 percent more fun? Well, maybe, maybe not–who knows?

My background as an actuary is very useful to help people manage their assets and risks, both financial and non-financial, in their later years. However, I need to move beyond our traditional actuarial training and mindset–we can have a tendency to excessive exactitude and the exclusive reliance on numbers and financial solutions.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in business? Be passionate about my mission and get out in the world. Whenever possible, meet face to face. Next best thing is to pick up the phone. Least effective is to send e-mails and write reports that nobody reads or understands.

What are the most significant risks taken in your career and how have they paid off? Leaving a position at a large consulting firm where I was successful, well-paid and well-liked. Was I nuts or what? Well, maybe, but I'm having fun and feeling like I'm making a difference.

What are your future plans? Experiment with new media to get the message out. I've published three books, and found that most Americans don't read books. They watch DVDs, surf the Internet, use their IPODs. I plan to go where most Americans get information and make decisions about their lives.

As you see it, how has the actuarial profession changed since you first came aboard? When I started in the mid-1970s, the FSA credential was all you needed for guaranteed employment. Now you need more–you actually have to be a nice person, a good communicator, an effective manager and salesperson. You have to look and act presentable. You need to be sensitive to others, have compassion for your fellow humans. You need to look beyond the numbers.

If you could turn back the clock, would you still pursue a degree in actuarial science or a similar field? I've had a wonderful life and wouldn't change a thing.

What mark/legacy, etc. do you want to leave on the world? How do you want people to remember you? That I contributed to helping people be more aware of how they live the rest of their lives. Are they making the best use of their time and money? Are they as healthy as possible? At the end, did they get their money's worth out of life?

I'd like to be remembered as a nice guy who did his best to help people, and his best was pretty damn good.

If you had extra time on your hands, what would you do? Spend more time with friends and family. Learn to play steel drums and guitar. Play more piano. Learn how to surf and kite-surf. Volunteer for the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity. Do more photography. Go to New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Peru, Japan, India, Bali, France, Denmark, South Africa and Alaska. See all the National Parks. Drive and/or bike across America. Raft the Grand Canyon. Learn Spanish. Explore human potential. I'm nearly 54 and am taking very good care of my health (following my own advice). I expect to live another 50 years, so maybe I'll get that extra time.


"For most people, the best ways to manage ruinous medical and long-term care costs are to get serious about diet, exercise and reducing stress. ..."