On a scorching day in 1977, Theresa (Loftsgard) Trauner, FLMI, reported to her first actuarial job—an internship at Mutual of Omaha—wearing a dress and pantyhose. The hem of her blue dress sat midthigh, the prescribed length for female workplace attire back then. Pantyhose were also part of the dress code—it didn’t matter that it was summer in Omaha, Nebraska, and 90 F outside.
Theresa, who goes by Tsa, was one of 10 students (and one of only two women) who graduated from Drake University’s actuarial program the following year. Because Drake was a private university and tuition was costly, Tsa worked hard to finish the degree in three years rather than four, and she earned extra money by being a math tutor. When she graduated in 1978, internship experience in hand, she joined Lincoln in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Huddled in the study room with other actuarial students, Tsa followed the group practice of “do a problem, eat a cookie.” Rinse. Repeat.
Unfortunately, analytical ability doesn’t always translate into the skill set needed to be successful at taking and passing actuarial exams. Despite her high aptitude in math, Tsa had trouble progressing after the second exam. By 1980, she dropped out of the actuarial development program.
But one did not need to be an actuary to work in insurance pricing at the time—Tsa’s colleagues included economists and statisticians. They shared one bulky desktop computer on a lazy Susan, which was reserved for running the pricing program. At that time, most inputs into the program (mortality assumptions, age distributions, risk class distributions) were derived by hand on paper. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s, driven by a change in the corporate mindset, that the pricing department became fully staffed by actuaries.
Tsa became aware of the Swiss-domiciled reinsurer Swiss Re when she started doing competitive intelligence work. In 2001, soon after Michelle (McDonald) Grusenmeyer, FSA, MAAA, joined, Swiss Re acquired Lincoln to broaden its U.S. footprint.
From Retail to Insurance
Before deciding to become an actuary, Michelle’s professional life began in the retail management world. While taking a full load of classes in pursuit of a business degree, she worked at Jo-Ann Fabrics, where she was quickly promoted to a store manager. From ages 20 to 26, Michelle developed a knack for turning failing stores into profitable centers. Corporate took notice and rotated her among five stores in six years to monetize her skill set. Sadly, that monetization didn’t translate to an adequate pay increase, so, at 26, she went back to school to finish her degree. When she graduated from Excelsior College in 2000, she was 30, had three kids under 4 years old and was just about to embark on the actuarial exam writing journey.
Lincoln Re hired Michelle in 2001 when she had just one actuarial exam under her belt, but her retail management experience spoke for her business skills. Compared to other actuarial students who were mostly hired straight out of college with two or more exams completed, both her age and background stood out. One actuary looked at the young mother of three, shook his head in silence and predicted she would not make it. He ate his words six years later when she became a qualified fellow, and he vowed to never underestimate her again. (Years later, he became her second husband.)
Valuable and Meaningful Work
While Tsa did not go down the full path of becoming an actuary, there were many other areas in an insurance company where her skills were valued. Because math, computing and programming came easily to her, she says: “I was second in command in informatics—collecting data and improving systems. I was breaking codes, and those IT folks were afraid of me because I found loopholes during testing all the time.”
Tsa programmed using Lotus Notes Version 1.0 and mainframe SAS (not PC SAS, Tsa was quick to add—that came later). This was a tremendous advance from punched cards, which was the machine language with which she worked when she started in the business.
After working with IT, Tsa shifted back to the business side of Swiss Re to provide support for pricing and sales. Every quarter, she’d scrub the mountain of data from the Blue Book (the blue-covered regulatory report filed by U.S. life and health insurers) and built useable and meaningful competitive intelligence reports. Some of these reports became standardized over time, but she would still field ad-hoc requests for specific business problems.
In short, Tsa did data science work before the term was even coined. “I knew what was available and how to get it. I understood what the business was looking for and provided value,” she says. Tsa notes that it was in this back-and-forth of asking clarifying questions and understanding the true business need behind a request that furthered education for both her and the requestor.
Two Different Career Paths Meet
Traditionally, actuarial students are required to rotate through different functions to get a well-rounded understanding of the business—and this was no different for Michelle. For six years, Michelle completed two-year rotations in research and development doing experience studies, corporate actuarial (“I did my time!”) and reinsurance pricing.
After the formal rotation program was over, Michelle became a marketing actuary. This last role was the most rewarding for her, because it gave her the best of both worlds—the number-crunching and technical pricing work and the people aspect of solving a client’s problems. When she was asked to head Business Services in 2009, Tsa was one of her direct reports. Together they underpromised and overdelivered.
As the most experienced person on the team, Tsa was responsible for creating, researching and providing critical client and competitor information. Many times, Michelle would leverage the information Tsa pulled together in presentations for senior leaders. Michelle also summarized their time spent fielding urgent requests from senior leaders as “putting out fires together.”
Along the way, Tsa and Michelle became friends as well as colleagues. “[Tsa] was there for me to listen when I needed a sounding board or to vent,” Michelle shares. “Her big heart made her a friend.”
In late 2010, Michelle was promoted to senior vice president and client manager, which came with a mandatory relocation from Fort Wayne to the company’s regional headquarters in Armonk, New York. The relocation became the last straw for an already strained marriage. One year and countless biweekly commutes later, faced with losing custody of her three preteen children, Michelle gave up the promotion and took a project and operations manager role for Swiss Re’s in-force business in Fort Wayne.
Looking back on that time, Michelle remarks that getting the promotion gave her a lot of confidence. Since 2016, she has moved back to a client-facing role and has continued helping her clients—regional and national direct insurers—solve their problems.
When asked what transferable skills she was able to use from her time at Jo-Ann Fabrics, Michelle holds up three fingers for visual reference and says: “One, there’s the math. I had to do mental conversion of fractions and decimals all the time. It might not be life contingencies, but I had to be quick on my feet, nevertheless. Two, I learned to manage people, and most retail staff is considerably less reliable than actuaries and insurance professionals. Three, I gained business sense. A question from a staff member or customer is never simply a question—in most cases, it is the symptom of a business problem that needs to be resolved. Drilling down to the root cause of a problem is always quicker and faster than letting a problem manifest.”
Always Be Learning
In 2018, Tsa retired from Swiss Re after four decades of service, a rarity in today’s gig economy. “When Tsa retired, the company lost a big asset,” Michelle says. “I truly miss having her just down the hall to borrow Advil from her, swap kid/grandkid stories, tell me where to find some industry information or just share a laugh.”
The secret to her career longevity, Tsa says, was her ability to always be learning. She explains: “When you work for a large corporate [organization], everything changes eventually and all the time. Your bosses change, your coworkers change and your work itself changes. You can never learn enough. The more you learn how to do something, the more valuable you become. If you are always there to help, learn and do, the company will keep you before they keep other people.”
On that note, Tsa adds: “You shouldn’t have a problem talking to anybody. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. You are asking questions to clarify and to learn—that’s important.”
Finally, Tsa advises: “Take pride in what you do, and do it with 110 percent [effort]. Be dependable, reliable and capable, and you’ll feel good about yourself.”
Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.