Under the Spotlight – Jan Swinhoe

In a special Olympics-themed edition of Under the Spotlight, Athletics Australia Vice President and Actuaries Institute Associate Jan Swinhoe discusses why she became an actuary, and shares her secrets to balancing her actuarial work with the significant commitment of helping steer the Australian athletics landscape into the future.

What makes you proud to be an actuary?…I have always felt it was a profession with high integrity, pursuing areas that ultimately would be for the greater good. After all these years I still have that view and combined with mathematics, it’s a killer combination.

Why did you become an actuary?…As a female growing up in country New South Wales and loving maths at school, I was very fortunate that the Head of Mathematics at my high school took an interest in my career direction and suggested I pursue this path.

Where did you study to become an actuary, and what qualifications have you obtained?…Unsure about whether I was ready for the “big smoke”, I headed to the University of New England and did a science degree which essentially was all pure maths, applied maths, statistics and physics. Then I decided I should have done Actuarial Studies, so I moved to Sydney and did my Associateship via the Institute in London by correspondence while I worked full-time.

Jan speaking at an Actuaries Institute event in 2016.

How has your skill set evolved throughout your career?…Massively. After working in the heady days of defined benefit corporate superannuation for nine years, I then switched to become a derivatives trader (investment banking) which morphed into corporate finance and ultimately running a large Private Bank. Since 2011, I have become a Non-Executive Director and serve on five Boards. During my career, I have had to learn a lot of new technical skills and also spend time honing my management and NED skills. I’m still learning!

What is your proudest career achievement to date?…That is such a hard question. I actually think it was getting my first job. Someone actually felt I was worth employing and I could make a difference.

What does a day in the life look like for you in your role with Athletics Australia?…No day is the same and I really enjoy the diversity of the Board. We have former Olympians, politicians, business people, audit partners and all bring such a wide perspective. At the moment, we are, of course, facing into the Olympics in Tokyo with a full and marvelous team, dealing with COVID-19 risks and quarantining through this time, hopefully entering into a merger with Little Athletics later in the year, issues around athlete health and wellbeing, accountability back to Sport Australia on performance, finance and audit committees, media and corporate sponsorship, beefing up our corporate governance and the list goes on. But it is totally wonderful, and I feel honoured to have this opportunity.

Jan hosting the 2021 Athletics Australia Gala Dinner in April 2021 and announcing the Olympic Team for Tokyo. Alongside Jan is Amy Winters, who won seven medals at three Paralympic Games, and partners.

What are some steps you take to balance your actuarial commitments and the Vice Presidency?…I have had to adjust my life so that I actually do some work almost every day. It is unrealistic to think a crisis can’t happen on the weekend or after hours, so I am very organized and try to block out large time periods in my diary (as well as set Board meetings) when I know there may be issues that I may need to be on call for.

What does work-life balance mean to you, and how do you achieve it?…I live a very full life and my most important commitment is to my family (my three children are all in their early twenties  and all studying at university, two at Australian National University and one at Sydney University). We are close and share interests in sport, out of the way travel experiences and cooking together. I learn from them all the time and, hopefully, they still find something I can add to their lives. I also still enjoy running (slowly these days), being outdoors and trying regular strength and flexibility classes. I wouldn’t say for a second that I have a good work/life balance, but they become intertwined in the end.

Jan with her three children on Mother’s Day 2020, following their traditional family Mother’s Day run.

What are some key traits required to excel in the actuarial profession and in athletics? Are there any unexpected similarities between the two?…Discipline (and years of it), precision, self-sacrifice, accountability, learning to be part of a team, asking for and accepting feedback and knowing you can always be better than you are if you stay focused on the goal.

You were appointed Vice President of Athletics Australia in 2014. How has the landscape of athletics in Australia changed in that time?…Sport in general has become far more corporatized and accountable and I mean that in a positive way. Much greater standards of governance, more far reaching planning, greater care for athlete mental health both during and after elite competition, more focus on ethical issues as well as focusing on athletics as a sport for life. We still have people competing at club level well into their eighties – fantastic!

Jan with the then NSW Minister for Sport, Stuart Ayers and President of Athletics NSW, Peter Higgins launching a community run in Western Sydney in 2019.

What other committees/boards do you also sit on?…I Chair Mercer Superannuation (Australia), Swiss Re (Australia and New Zealand), IMB Ltd and Australian Philanthropic Services as well as various of their Subcommittees.

What are your hobbies?…Not surprisingly, running, yoga (definitely needs more focus), walking holidays (in Tanzania, Rwanda, Oman, and Northern Italy), Sydney Theatre Company, most movies at Golden Age Cinema and nice food and wine.

What’s one thing not many people know about you?…I ran my first full marathon at age 55. I had done many, many half marathons but hadn’t made the commitment to do the full 42.195 kms. I cried when I crossed the line as it was such a mental and physical effort (especially at that age). I have now completed five marathons, with my favourite being the Berlin Marathon because of its international inclusivity.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career (and why)?…Undoubtedly, my father. Totally amazing person who always had perspective, high integrity, never dramatic, and had a way of keeping you grounded.

What is the most valuable skill an actuary can possess?…Being fair-minded and always making a decision that is ethically the right thing to do.…

At least once in their life, every actuary should…Do something where they might fail and puts them way out of their comfort zone but ultimately is meaningful – successful or not.

If you could travel back in time, what would you do?…Career wise, I would do it all again, which is not to say I haven’t made mistakes but ultimately it has always been interesting and has put me in the space where I am now. Personally, perhaps worked overseas earlier than I did, say when I was in my mid-twenties.

What is the most creative application of actuarial capabilities you have used in your career?…I don’t know that it is so creative, but the life expectancy tables coupled with my early career mean that I am always talking to millennials about their super and the value of compound interest. My three children (and some of their friends) are all over the rules, much to their horror!

Jan training for an ultra marathon event earlier this year.

What is the most interesting or valuable job or project you have worked on in your career and why?…It would have to be back in the late eighties when I was working in derivatives in a dealing room and Alan Bond, Robert Holmes a ‘Court and Christopher Skase were all doing huge deals with us. What goes on the road…

Where do you see the Actuarial profession in 10 years?…Hopefully thriving and being collaborative with our peers globally as well as buddying up with other professions where there is overlap. We can play a big role in data science, ethics, physics and many social issues but we need to adapt quickly. I am very optimistic about the future of the profession.

If you were President of the Institute, what is one thing you would improve?…Be more inclusive and find a way to reach out and connect with all members (just like athletics). Everyone can be part of the profession and has something to offer at any age or level of experience.

What is your advice for younger actuaries?…Think big and bold and be brave.

Who are Australia’s best medal contenders in athletics at the Tokyo Olympics?… It is wrong to have a favorite child so I will not answer that. Suffice to say, though, we have terrific middle distance runners (Craig Mottram’s 16-year-old Australian record was broken recently by Stewart McSweyn), high jumpers (both male and female), throwers and our para-athletes are exceptional.

Given you’re unable to be there in person, where will you be watching tonight’s opening ceremony?…Absolutely. I have already been watching so many other country’s Nationals, Diamond League meets etc. and was lucky to be at our Nationals in April, so I have many long days and evenings ahead of me.


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