From Asia to North America and Back

Experiences of an Asian working in North America—and then coming back to Asia


Paul Nguyen, FSA

This article highlights the challenges and experiences of Paul Nguyen, FSA, CEO of Aviva Vietnam. Over the course of his life and career, Nguyen moved from Vietnam to Canada, and then back to Asia. In this article, he compares his work experience in Canada and the United States to his experiences in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Arriving in Canada and Initial Challenges

Nguyen was born in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, to a military family. He left Vietnam in 1979 on a refugee boat and spent a year in Thailand drifting through different refugee camps. He was admitted to Quebec, Canada, to a foster family in 1981, and after a few years he was fortunate to be reunited with his family in Toronto. When he got there, he was penniless and found work at a car wash on the weekends. His younger sister and brother delivered newspapers to make pocket money.

As a new immigrant, Nguyen learned the values of hard work, discipline and the importance of education. “My father gave me a choice: either to get a good education to have a better future or work in a factory,” he says. “I chose the first option. Thinking of a better future gave me a lot of motivation to survive.”

Nguyen started grade nine without understanding a word of English, but he was able to finish grade 13 under the then Ontario Curriculum and attend the University of Toronto. Although he wanted to study to be a translator and tried to specialize in French, he could not make the program, as the majority of the students who entered this program were French-speaking natives.

Bethesda United Church, which sponsored his family to come to Canada, had many members who were professionals—doctors, engineers, professors and so on. After learning he was good in mathematics, one of the sponsors talked with Nguyen about actuarial science. Some of Nguyen’s friends also talked about actuarial science and its potential to land him a job after graduation. Hence, the actuarial pathway was his choice.

Working in North America and Asia

Nguyen’s first actuarial job was in Toronto as an actuarial clerk. This job was very memorable, as he joined the company with no prior experience working in an office environment. He also was dealing with language barriers.

“I had challenges with the fellowship papers, but I persevered,” he says. “The hard work paid off. I became a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries in 2001 at age 37, after taking the exams for 12 years.”

After his early working years in Toronto, Nguyen applied for jobs in the United States. After at least five interviews in different states, he found work in Baltimore, Maryland, and Galveston, Texas. During his time in the United States, Nguyen was an annuity valuation and pricing manager. It turned out that Canadian actuaries were desired by U.S. life insurance companies because most Canadian actuaries have gone through an actuarial rotational program, which gives them more exposure to different lines of business, ranging from valuation to pricing.

After working in the United States for almost four years, Nguyen moved back to Asia. He worked in Hong Kong as well as Jakarta, Indonesia, in various actuarial and management roles before moving back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

In Hong Kong, Nguyen was the pricing actuary for the team managing product pricing, approval, strategies and budgeting for a number of countries in Asia Pacific Life Operations, including India, Indonesia, Korea, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. He worked with foreign and local actuaries, and this included significant time communicating and following up on matters impacting the local business units.

When working in Hong Kong, Nguyen frequently visited the Indonesian operation, following up and helping with product pricing and designing compensation schemes. His job was to share business practices and different product designs from North America.

When Nguyen arrived in Vietnam, actuarial science was a relatively new concept in the country. Product ideas were limited, and the life industry was relatively small compared to Hong Kong and Indonesia. The actuarial profession in Vietnam took off relatively fast, as there were a number of Vietnamese-Canadian actuaries already working in the market. Today, Nguyen is working in Ho Chi Minh City as CEO of Aviva Vietnam.

Lessons Learned From Working in North America

In Nguyen’s first actuarial position, the initial formal training only consisted of a half day of Lotus 123 training before performing group annuity pricing and reserving. There were also several times in his career when he was the sole person involved in pricing or valuation work.

“Being the sole person means constant multitasking, as you tend to be involved in multiple projects at the same time,” notes Nguyen. “From early in my career, I had to think of automation and building more efficient means of doing actuarial work.”

Nguyen also learned to manage product implementation effectively with detailed specifications, including precise mathematical formulae and numerical analyses for implementers to follow, and he created Microsoft Excel testing spreadsheets for information technology (IT) to use. During these early years, he wrote detailed product specifications and called meetings to explain the details to receive feedback to enhance the product.

“By building a ground-up detailed understanding of the products and the situation, I was able to make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions, getting help from colleagues when needed,” Nguyen adds.

While he worked in North America, Nguyen realized that needing to speak English, which is his second language, was a disadvantage. He felt shy when speaking English out loud due to his accent. He recalls in one of his first interviews after graduation that he asked the interviewer if they had understood him well. The interviewer replied that Nguyen spoke better English than the French Canadians! He previously had been told that people could only understand about 50 percent of his English; hence, he always had this subconscious fear.

Nguyen learned a lot while working in Canada and the United States. He gained in-depth knowledge about different product designs, both actuarial and technical, which later helped his career in Asia.

Nguyen’s English as a Second Language (ESL) classmates came from different countries— Thailand, Korea, Japan, Iran and Indonesia, to name a few. They were all learning to speak English, but the way they expressed themselves differed depending on their culture. Understanding how culture dictates the way “Asians” speak English helped Nguyen in his career when he moved back to Asia.

When he was working in North America as an actuarial student, and later on as an actuarial associate, the tasks seemed repetitive. Although he had less opportunity to see the bigger picture through this work, the tasks groomed him to be technically sound. Through this type of on-the-job training, actuaries learn the fundamentals of preparation of pricing or valuation reports, and get exposure to certain lines of business. Nguyen’s career in North America gave him exposure to valuation, pricing and product development.

“I consider myself very fortunate, having gained exposure in driving the product development of different product lines, including participating, non-participating, universal life, disability and critical illness product, as well as deferred and immediate annuities,” Nguyen says. “I also had an opportunity to serve the sales agents by preparing universal life quotations. I feel it was this variety of experiences that gave me a shot at getting a good opportunity to move to Asia.”

In summary, the key lessons for Nguyen in being successful as an actuary in North America were thinking outside of the box, automation, multitasking, taking initiatives, making and being responsible for decisions, helping others and having empathy for their situation, sharing knowledge, being bold and spending time at the end of each day reflecting on the tasks from the day and lessons learned.

Lessons Learned From Working in Asia

When Nguyen first moved back to Asia, he realized that culture played a much more important role in the working environment, such as the different cultural ways of expressing thoughts and approaches to the matter at hand. By understanding the importance of culture, he was able to do his job effectively.

“It has been an honor to work with actuaries from such diverse countries as Indonesia, India, Korea, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia and New Zealand,” says Nguyen. “These experiences have helped me express myself better, and I have learned to communicate differently depending on the culture. It has also given me the opportunity to extend and receive support.”

Nguyen’s experience is that North American actuaries communicate very directly, do the work, and get it done or leave the company. Personally, he felt this was good—feeling “scared,” learning to be more disciplined and figuring out what it takes to deliver results on time. People expect actuaries to do research, find solutions, prepare proper reports and so on, and Nguyen felt that the training in North America gave him a lot of advantages when he moved to Asia.

While working in Indonesia, Nguyen experienced that the direct, confrontational style of communication he learned in North America did not always work. Nonetheless, the company depends on actuaries to make sound financial decisions, minimize risks and deliver business objectives.

Nguyen used a direct approach while working with more senior employees, but for junior actuaries, he acted more nurturing—he “held their hands,” helped with ideas and sat next to the juniors to review spreadsheets and calculations. He felt that as long as the intention is to help and make a difference, then the direct approach to communication can be used—provided that trust has been earned.

Regarding working with different cultures, Nguyen’s Japanese colleagues were extremely polite. He found it interesting that they would continuously bow while talking with their boss on the phone. He also learned to use more paraphrasing to understand what was said. In meetings, good news was given more often instead of bringing up problems and issues to be resolved. Looking good in front of others—“having face” in meetings—was more important; hence, he had to raise questions to understand potential issues. Following up is much more time consuming while working in Asia, which tends to be why there are long delivery dates on projects. He also learned to write in bullet points, as full sentences may not be understood.

One thing Nguyen has tried to do, which is appreciated in any culture, is to lead by example and get directly involved on the ground where possible. For example, he was working in Indonesia during the time of the 2004 tsunami. His team had to quantify the impact. He and two other actuaries had to download the data, and they took turns eyeballing it, policy by policy, to determine which policy was sold in the impacted area to estimate the financial impact.

Nguyen also leveraged his experiences in North America and shared them with the Asian regulators where relevant. For example, he explained to a number of regulators how a participating dividend would be determined, sharing the reports and deployed methodology to assist the regulators with their own work. Similarly, he also shared insights into the appointed actuary report and the responsibilities of the appointed actuary. As a result, a number of regulations were promulgated.

While in Asia, Nguyen noticed that young actuarial students may not be confined to a pure actuarial role. Rather, they also would be involved in a much wider range of activities, such as being pulled into contest preparations for the sales force, working with distribution to design compensation schemes, working with marketing to sign off on content or even designing a scheme for top producers such as Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT).

Comparing the Work Environments in North America and Asia

In Nguyen’s opinion, the actuarial tasks in North America tend to be more repetitive and very specialized. There are a number of lines of business, such as participating, non-participating, investment, universal life, annuities, disability, critical illness, long-term health care, group, affinity marketing and so on. The companies for which he worked in Toronto often had an FSA responsible for each business line, including valuation, pricing and other business aspects. The companies had student programs with mandatory rotations for actuarial students every couple of years to provide exposure and experience.

In North America, normally only FSAs or very senior actuaries have the privilege of attending business or strategic meetings. The discipline to adhere to delivery dates is practiced at a high level, as well as discipline with respect to exams, since steadily passing exams is a condition to remain in the actuarial program. The market is also more saturated in North America, as there are more FSAs and ASAs in general, so opportunities to rise to the top are much tougher due to competition. In addition, the opportunity for a junior actuary to join meetings with the appointed actuary tends to be rare. Opportunities to work with regulators also are scarce in comparison to working in Asia.

In Asia, especially in the countries where Nguyen has worked, there is a shortage of actuarial talent. FSAs and ASAs are hard to find, which creates competition for top talent among insurance companies. Junior actuaries are required to be more versatile, often multitasking, and they may be invited to business meetings due to their analytical capabilities. Because of this, Nguyen feels supervision and support may need to be much stricter to ensure quality and that delivery dates are met. Regular communication and continued oversight, including regular intervention with greater details, are often necessary. Language and cultural barriers sometimes pose an issue for nonlocal actuaries. But in Nguyen’s experience, these challenges can be overcome by digging deep, rolling up the sleeves to assist and building a sound working relationship and rapport from the beginning.

Understanding Asian and North American Cultures

“Human beings are very diverse in their lifestyles, religion, gender, race and so many other factors,” notes Nguyen. “Actuaries who experience differing cultures will be able to communicate effectively in a wide range of both verbal and nonverbal situations. This ability helps to understand healthy ways of dealing with differences and building relationships.

“Such actuaries can be a bridge to bring people together and facilitate discussions to be more effective. They also can take best practices in different areas to translate to a local context to arrive at a solution that benefits the local culture and people. At the end of the day, insurance is simply about creating products of value to people, so actuaries must be able to understand culture and communication.”

Final Advice

Nguyen shares some final advice for any actuaries interested in working in Asia: “Volunteer to take on initiatives beyond your normal job scope to create your own opportunities to learn and work with others,” he suggests. “If you priced a product, volunteer to do a focus group study with top producers or with customers to understand the issues from their point of view. Ask to be part of the implementation team to have opportunities to work with underwriters, operations, IT, legal or other departments in the company. Volunteer to prepare user request forms for IT development, or conduct user acceptance tests.”

He adds: “Share your expertise with others and, in turn, you may learn from others. Be helpful, lend a helping hand, initiate the first move and reach out to others to be accepted.”

Paul Nguyen, FSA, is the CEO of Aviva Vietnam.

Copyright © 2020 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.