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Mark Franzen charted his own course … and made it big!


Mark Franzen
charted his own course...
and made it big!

By Jacque Kirkwood

Mark Franzen, FSA, began his career as a mathematics professor at UCLA. He enjoyed teaching, but felt a strong pull to practice some real world mathematics. So he became an actuarial student and earned his FSA. His actuarial journey has proven to be the right path to take and eventually served as a catalyst to start his own business (IntelRx) and see his dream come to fruition. He is now managing director of Milliman IntelliScript (formerly IntelRx), a company that provides online prescription histories and related software tools to insurers. Franzen contends that the main things one needs to grow in any field are confidence, opportunity and a great team.

Tell us about your job at Milliman. In 2001, some investors approached me about starting a software company to provide online prescription histories to insurance underwriters. I thought it was a fascinating idea–once an insurance applicant signed an authorization, we could provide the applicant's prescription history in a matter of seconds via the Internet to the underwriter, providing for a much faster decision and much better risk selection. For individual health insurance, current methods relied on obtaining and interpreting physician statements, which could take weeks. Our technology would allow insurers to make decisions the same day.

The company I founded with the investors, IntelRx, got off to somewhat of a slow start. In 2005, Milliman acquired IntelRx, renamed it Milliman IntelliScript, and the business took off. Milliman's strong brand in the insurance arena–plus the fact that the market was ready to accept the technology–proved to be a fantastic combination.

With the acquisition, I was named managing director of IntelliScript. I love what I do at Milliman. I'm surrounded by very intelligent people who fundamentally understand insurance markets and what we are working to achieve. Milliman has given my team the freedom to pursue our own course in building the business. There is something really satisfying about working with a team to create a product or service that other people find valuable.

What other positions have you held? I have a Ph.D. in mathematics and I started my career as a math professor at UCLA in 1988. I found I wanted to practice a little more real world mathematics, so I took a job at Trustmark Insurance Company as an actuarial student in 1991. I earned my FSA in 1995, after holding group health and corporate actuarial roles there. After I obtained my FSA, Trustmark gave me the opportunity to lead an IT start-up subsidiary, InfoTrust. Being part of a start-up really gave me the bug for creating and building a business.

What intrigues you about business? Change and opportunity. The business world is so dynamic. You have to continually question your assumptions and adjust your model of the world to match the latest information. At the same time, there are always new opportunities, if you are open to seeing them.

How do you measure success? By finding a field you truly enjoy, where you can use your unique strengths to make a contribution. Perseverance has certainly played a part in any success I have had. In both start-up businesses I have been a part of, there were many people who said the ideas wouldn't work, and there were many times it appeared the business might fail. By working hard and sticking with it, I was able to make it through the tough times.

Would you still pursue a degree in actuarial science if you could turn back the hands of time? Yes. My degree in mathematics has proven to be valuable in each turn of my career. Actuarial science is for me a satisfying way to use mathematics to solve real world problems.

How has the actuarial profession changed since you first came aboard? Actuaries in general, I think, have become broader thinkers and better communicators. This has been driven in part by the changing dynamics of our market. Perhaps it used to be that passing exams, earning the credentials and focusing on the technical aspects of our profession was a recipe for success for many actuaries. Now the market demands that just about anyone in an actuarial role is able to communicate his or her ideas effectively and knows how to navigate business situations. What hasn't changed is our rock-solid reputation for integrity.

How has your background as an actuary positively impacted your career? In starting a business or selling a product, you need someone to listen to your story and believe what you are saying. Being an actuary brings an automatic measure of credibility and respect, particularly for people in the insurance industry. They may not buy from you, but because you are an actuary, people are generally willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and listen to your story. The reputation of the actuarial profession is a tremendous asset in this way.

Another positive has been my network of actuarial friends and colleagues. Actuaries are very knowledgeable about almost all aspects of insurance, so they are excellent resources when I have questions or need to bounce my ideas off of someone.

What do you consider your most memorable career accomplishment thus far? Seeing the IntelliScript business succeed has personally been very satisfying. There were a lot of folks that said the concept wouldn't work and there were many days in the first few years when it looked like they might be right.

In the first few years, I was out there alone, knocking on insurer doors to tell the story of this new concept. Now we have a fantastic team of people who know our business inside and out. This year, we'll provide over a million prescription histories to more than 75 insurance companies.

Describe a great day on the job. Good days for me are working directly with a client to help them solve a problem. It's even better if we can provide an analysis or observation that allows them to see something they haven't see before.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in business? Know who your customers are, know their needs and make sure you are meeting those needs. Whether you are selling software to an insurance company CEO or presenting a financial report to your boss, you need to know your customer. Put yourself in his or her shoes and try to understand what they are after.

What are the most significant risks you've taken during your career? Leaving a steady job to start a business was certainly a big risk for me. There were many days it looked like the business wouldn't make it. But that ended up making it feel even better when the business finally did catch on.

I had some experience with that risk/reward tradeoff. I have made a couple of career changes (from math professor to actuary and from more traditional actuary to actuarial entrepreneur). There were risks in each of these transitions that seemed daunting at the time. However, each time I made the change, my previous background helped me in my new career by giving me a broader perspective, and the feeling of accomplishment grew as I broadened my own horizons. For me, taking risks then succeeding has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with aspiring actuaries? Be flexible. Don't be afraid of change. Get to know as many people as you can both inside your organization and out–actuaries and non-actuaries. SOA and industry meetings are great for this.

What are five things every actuary needs to be successful?

  1. Communication skills.
  2. Subject matter knowledge.
  3. A network of friends/colleagues that you trust. When you don't know the answer, it is good to know someone who does.
  4. Confidence.
  5. At some point, you have to pass a few exams.

What do you like to do for fun? I like to spend time with my family: my wife, Janice, and my children, Bryan (15) and Sarah (12). In my free time, I enjoy waterskiing and playing bridge.

How does it feel to be considered an actuarial pioneer by your peers? I am truly honored. I know there are a lot of actuaries out there doing really innovative, non–traditional things. They should all be celebrated.

Jacque Kirkwood is a senior communications associate at the Society of Actuaries.