A very nice professional life
Gilbert Dewanckele (pictured right) recently retired as company actuary and the actuary at the pension funds of Belgian insurer Vivium, which had assets under management of €2.5bn. He talks to George Coats about his career
1, What was your first full-time job - and do you remember what you were paid at the time?
My first job was as a junior actuary with Assurances Patriotique, a Belgian insurer that no longer exists, that I joined back in the 1970s after I had completed my military service and worked as a schoolteacher while waiting to be called up. I was paid more or less €1,200 a month. In fact, I never left Partiotique. Some time after I joined it merged with two other companies to form ING Insurance, which last year sold its insurance operations to Vivium. So although I have had three employers during my career I have not changed company; the names changed but not my job.
2, What was the best piece of advice that anyone gave you career wise and did you take it?
I was told: “Don’t work too hard, save some money and let your money work for you,” by a director at Patriotique. And yes, I have followed his advice. While my colleagues spent all their money on cars and other things, I saved it and invested it in shares. Indeed I still own some of them a generation later. Sometimes I sold, of course, but why sell good shares? If you sell you must do something with the money and if you can’t see a better alternative, if the company appears to have a bright future, you should keep the shares. So you could say I followed a buy-and-hold investment strategy with a long time horizon.
3, How did a nice person like you become involved in a pensions career?
As an actuary with a company producing group pension insurance products I became a pensions specialist. Group insurance is an important product in the Belgian pensions market. So that gave me an expertise in the second pillar. And, as group insurance complements the state-run first pillar, I had to look at both sides - the first pillar and the second pillar - and I had to attend conferences with brokers, insurance brokers and so on. Consequently, I also developed real expertise in the first pillar area and was a consultant in this sector. In fact, my job to a certain extent was to make people afraid by pointing out that the first pillar was not enough so they needed the second pillar, so my job also had some commercial aspects.
4, What was the most satisfying achievement during your career - and why?
I made a lot of improvements in our administration. I oversaw the introduction of automation and although I did not write the programs I undertook the key inputs, especially the actuarial input - mortality tables and so on. However, I am also proud of my contributions to two trade organisations in which I was a very active member. As an actuary I was a member of the Association of Actuaries and I was also a member of the Belgian Pension Fund Association. So for me the major achievement was the very large number of interesting people I met and the good contacts and friends I made in these groups. The meetings were very convivial, good dinners and wines, and that all fitted well into my style of living - work hard but realise that other things are also important and keep a good balance.
5, And what was the worst moment in your career - and why?
There might have been small ones, but nothing big. I don’t remember a particular case.
6, How would you sell a career in pensions to a prospective newcomer to the industry?
Pensions is a hot topic. It comes very near to reflecting real life, everyone has had a confrontation in their life with pensions - building up a pension in their active career. And now in Belgium we have a new government programme, and whenever this occurs the new government’s programme always contains a chapter on pensions. And I am still interested and I have studied the new government’s proposals.
7, What would you do differently?
On the big steps, nothing but perhaps I would change some small things. I realise I am sounding a little satisfied with my professional life. It was nice, very nice.
8, Do you have any unfilled ambitions?
Not really, not in the area of pensions. But I would like to have travelled more. And now I have the time I must start. I have already decided that I will join the grape harvest, picking grapes in the Champagne region for three weeks at the end of the summer and through a friend I have made an arrangement with a farmer. After the pensions I must do other things.
9, Have you retired or have you recycled yourself into some new role?
I am retired. There is a pre-retirement possibility in Belgium that will end in the near future but I took advantage of it while I could. I will do other things with my life while I am able. I have a lovely house on 10,000 square metres near Bruges and I will cultivate my garden, grow vegetables and tend fruit trees, apples and so on. I have also bought a camper so for 50 to 60 days a year I will be on trips. But as far as work goes, I will not do a lot. When I was asked to take up some consultancy I said no, but of course I will maintain some contacts with colleagues.
10, Your words of wisdom for those in the pensions industry?
The longevity problem will increase in the future as society has to cope with a growing number of elderly people, and this makes the pensions issue a matter of immense importance. And while everybody is talking about the first, second and third pillars one should not lose sight of the fact that the most important goal is to have made adequate preparation, what we call ‘having your own house’, when you come to retire. This means not only ensuring that you have adequate financial resources but also finding things to do with your time and having the money to allow you to do them.