Hoa Bui – Making a difference

Hoa Bui learned much about people and leadership in her career as an actuary. She speaks with Stephanie Quine about the journey, charting some big changes for the profession in Australia.

Actuaries are known for being strongly analytical, with an acute attention to detail, patterns, risks and predictions. They are sometimes perceived as back-room, introverted professionals but “nothing could be further from the truth,” says Hoa Bui, Partner at KPMG.

It was passion and people skills that convinced Hoa to pursue an actuarial career.

At 18 years of age and new to Australia from her homeland Vietnam (where there were no actuaries), Hoa found herself in the Australian Government Actuary’s office, courtesy of her resourceful school career advisor.

“John had nothing to gain by talking to me, absolutely nothing,” says Hoa of John Ford, the then-Australian Government Actuary who generously agreed to meet with the high school student for an hour to discuss what an actuary does in the government sector.

His work advising Government on population demographics and life tables impressed the young Hoa, but it was John’s generosity and good nature that she remembers most fondly.

She says the same of the now retired Peter Gower, whom Hoa quizzed on his work as a senior commercial actuary at National Mutual, then an iconic Melbourne institution.  

Her curiosity was later rewarded with a university scholarship from Peter.

“I am very lucky to have worked for many industry leaders, Ian Laughlin, Ted Rudge, Graham Slater, Michael Cant,” says Hoa.


Getting to know you

On the advice of her brother, Hoa repeated Year 11 when she arrived to settle in Canberra, keeping busy by learning English and other basics of the Australian way of life “like that Melbournians love AFL”, before focusing on her HSC exams.

“A lot of my friends came through at 18 and tried to get to University as soon as possible, whereas I found it was really important to understand what makes Australians tick; how to talk to people in a pub, for example…I really liked that period,” she says.

Behind Hoa’s cheery sense of humour, there is a considered, big-picture thinker; open minded to fresh perspectives in the name of intelligent change.

“I think we need more high profile actuaries who don’t fit the usual stereotype to do more things in the public domain so people can see how widely our skills set can be applied,” says Hoa.

Growing up she was academically strong in maths, but never aspired to be academic.

“I always wanted to do something practical and make a difference,” says Hoa.

A standout project of her career involved working alongside an accounting partner and a risk manager, and consulting with 15 countries. As part of the consulting panel, Hoa advised the Hong Kong Government on a new risk based capital framework. 

“We didn’t have any constrain about what we could design so, unbound by history and what’s already been developed over time, we examined: ‘what would your ideal framework look like for this economy? Would it look more like a LAGIC framework, or would it look more like Solvency II?”

The framework proposal was developed into a paper by the Government and is now being developed into its second phase.

“It was an exciting and interesting project, both for human interaction and technical development,” says Hoa.

Challenges ahead

When Hoa joined the Actuaries Institute Council this year, one of her key areas of interest was the education for life insurance actuaries.

As an employer of actuaries, she sees first hand when the education system has been successful, and also areas where improvement is required, including context, industry knowledge, communication skills, technology and programming skills.

“How do we make it “cool” to be an actuary?” Hoa asks.

“We need to, as a profession, articulate how we want to be interacting with the business community… that will also help us define how we train actuaries and educate them to support that purpose,” she says.

When Hoa studied actuarial science at Macquarie University in the 80’s, demand for actuaries was greater than supply. Most students in the course had a scholarship, actuaries were well regarded in the company and many ended up in the CEO role.

“As a student, when the Chief Actuary visited, it was an occasion. We only saw the Chief Actuary once a year when the actuarial exam results were announced. When he retired, every actuarial student got to come to his farewell lunch and have the rest of the day off,” she says.

Macquarie University produced 20 graduates a year, and was the only university in Australia (in fact, the only one in the world) that offered an actuarial degree.

Today, there are seven Australian universities each producing around 50-70 graduates each. 

“Part of the education challenge is about making sure we have a good pipeline of talented people who want to become actuaries. How do we make it “cool” to be an actuary?” Hoa asks.

At an Institute event this year, Hoa expressed concern about the lack of interest in younger actuaries in taking up Life Insurance Appointed Actuary (AA) roles. While actuaries are well equipped to analyse and assess policy liability, capital adequacy, insurance risk, and pricing, being able to focus on key strategic issues would make the AA role more attractive and interesting, Hoa says.

HoaAnother challenge is getting qualified actuaries, working in non-traditional areas and management, to identify as actuaries and share their knowledge and experience.

“I think we need more high profile actuaries who don’t fit the usual stereotype to do more things in the public domain so people can see how widely our skills set can be applied,” says Hoa.

HoaLeading to empower

Hoa began her first job as an actuary for National Mutual, who later became part of the French company AXA in the 90’s, where she worked with a range of nationalities.

“To my surprise, I found the Germans had the most considered and people-focused approach, whereas the French were quite task focused, and the Australian approach was a mixture of people and tasks. In Asian culture, it’s all about consensus, inclusion and how it appears to people,” says Hoa.

Such observations inform Hoa’s inclusive, dynamic leadership approach. She currently leads a department of a 50 consulting actuaries at KPMG Actuarial and has experience managing both consultants and actuaries in small teams and large companies.

“Actuaries can be perfectionists at times so it’s all about balancing the detail and the quality and the commercial aspect of your project,” she says.

In the ‘customer outcome focused’ consultancy environment, employee’s skill levels and interests are often much more important than their title. Harnessed correctly, this environment can bring out the best in people.

“It really tests your listening skills, your empowerment skills; as opposed to allocating the task,” says Hoa.

Hoa Glacier
Hoa at one of the world’s largest glaciers on holiday in South America last year.

Balancing act

Another one of Hoa’s engagements involves acting as the external Appointed Actuary for a life insurer, a role which she enjoys as it allows her to straddle the corporate and the consulting world.

Balancing work and Institute activities with family life is an art she works to perfect.

After finalising an Institute paper on disability income while on the beach on a family holiday, Hoa’s husband “requested”: “No more papers please”.

“I ended up doing a few presentations – he didn’t say anything about presentations,” she laughs, adding that consistently acknowledging important work and personal relationships to the people around you is essential to keeping those relationships healthy.

Hoa continues to learn from different perspectives, leading by example when it comes to giving back to her profession and shaping its future.

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