September 2013

Interview with a Mad MaD Actuary

By Michelle Krysiak

Jim Harkensee has been in the actuarial profession for more than 30 years. He has been a member of the MaD section for many years and just recently ended his term with the council last fall. This interview is one way to help the members get to know who is involved in the section and who has contributed to making it a meaningful and valuable section. Jim is an important resource to the section, even now as a friend of the council. He is easily approachable if anyone is interested in learning more about MaD, the actuarial profession, his experience with the Society of Actuaries or the industry in general. His contact information can be found at the end of this article.

I started my actuarial career with Jim as my boss. He is a very fun, non-traditional, hard-working actuary who cares about his staff and their growth. His motto has always been “work hard and have fun.” I think that was never truer than when he ran Zurich Direct. The staff loved where they worked and grew the business from nothing into one of the top direct life distribution systems in the country. He is a very interesting and dynamic individual, definitely does not fit the mold of a typical actuary. Now on to the interview:

M: How did you get into the actuarial profession?

J: I had always wanted to be dentist, following in my dad’s footsteps, and joining his practice. Besides being a dentist, my dad also consulted on voluntary group worksite dental programs. Through that he was able to see actuaries in action and encouraged me to consider that route given my aptitude in math. Ultimately, I followed his advice.

M: Tell us your work history.

J: Straight out of college I joined Bankers Life and Casualty as an actuarial student. My focus there was in financial reporting on the life insurance side. After 6 ½ years there I got my FSA and joined Zurich Life. At Zurich Life I started as the financial actuary and eventually was appointed chief actuary. While at Zurich Life, I also had the opportunity, which I accepted with much hesitation, to run a distribution organization, called Zurich Direct, which I did for eight years. After leaving Zurich Life I worked for about one year on a joint venture between the Ford Motor Company and Inslogic to bring auto insurance to new car purchasers. This was way out of the box for me, being in the personal lines space, but I was brought on because of my experience in direct marketing. During that time, I was hired by Fidelity Life and have been there ever since (the last nine years).

M: What is your current role at Fidelity Life and your favorite part of your job there?

J: President and COO. Working with our sister company, Efinancial, to try to figure out creative ways to bring valuable life insurance products to a vastly underserved middle market … and then see those methods succeed.

M: What would you say was your proudest moment in your work career?

J: Receiving my Fellowship in the Society of Actuaries.

M: Why is that?

J: Because it took so much personal sacrifice to achieve.

M: At what point, did you struggle the most as an actuary?

J: In the early years as president of Zurich Direct. I initially felt unqualified for the role and had so much to learn. Over time, I came to realize that my training as an actuary probably made me uniquely qualified, in some ways, for that role.

M: If you were to recommend the actuarial profession to a person entering college, what advice would you give him or her?

J: Work hard and sacrifice to get the exams done quickly. Focus on communication, and how to describe complex issues in simple terms. And finally, if interested, distinguish yourself at the workplace and show the company that you can add value beyond traditional actuarial work.

M: What took you away from the traditional actuarial role?

J: To be honest, I wasn’t given a choice. When I was offered the role of being president of Zurich Direct, I was seriously considering turning it down. I thought it would be too risky for my career. Luckily, I was then told that not taking the role was not an option. It turned out to be the best thing for me.

M: What about it made you come to the conclusion it was the best thing for you?

J: Because since that time, I have gone from having a nice job and career to seeing things from a perspective I would have never known, feeling like I could really make a difference in our industry, and loving my job.

M: How do you think actuaries can assist in marketing and distribution of insurance products?

J: In my view, right now the biggest failing of our life insurance industry is the process involved in getting valuable life insurance coverage into the consumers’ hand. Distributors will come up with great ideas to overcome this, but most of the time these ideas fall apart when it comes to risk selection and actuarial pricing. This is where actuaries have an opportunity to work closely with distributors, be creative, and work to overcome these obstacles.

M: When you are not being a geek, what do you do with your free time?

J: There is never a time that I am not a geek. However, now that my children have grown I try to play as much golf with my free time as I can.

M: What is the biggest benefit you see in being a member of the MaD section?

J: I think the leadership team (section council) does a good job of providing valuable information in a lot of different ways (research, sessions at meetings, webinars, articles, etc.) that really does give insight into consumers, distributors, and the problems that seem to be holding back our industry in serving middle America.

M: What do you feel is the biggest benefit to being a member of the SOA?

J: I think the SOA does a great job of maintaining the value and respect of our credentials.

M: How has the SOA evolved during your career for the better? In any way for the worse?

J: I believe it has evolved for the better. One way is that the meetings seem to be far more informative and beneficial than they were earlier in my career. A second way is that the leadership seems to be running the organization more like a business and less like an administrative function, which I believe is good for all of us. I can’t really think of any way for the worse.

M: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

J: I don’t know, but in many ways I don’t look at what I do as working. At Fidelity Life and Efinancial, we are trying to really change the life insurance industry for the better. If I continue to feel that way, then I will still probably be involved in my career somehow in 10 years, and not fully retired.

M: Where do you see the actuarial profession and the SOA in 10 years?

J: The SOA will be the premier actuarial organization globally in 10 years.

M: What is the best advice you could give to anyone, work or life related?

J: Be true to yourself.

I want to thank Jim for taking the time to share some personal information and allowing the section to get to better know one of our active members. If anyone is interested in volunteering for anything, such as presenting at a meeting, offering a webinar, or writing an article for the MaD section please do not hesitate to reach out to the council.

Michelle Krysiak, FSA, MAAA, is a consulting actuary at Milliman. She can be contacted at

Jim Harkensee, FSA, MAAA, is president and COO of Fidelity life. He can be contacted at