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Interview with Roel van Besouw

Pepyn van Haaften
06 november 2018
Career

On Thursday 25 October, I sat down with Roel van Besouw, managing partner and co-founder of Triple A Risk Finance. We discussed the company, as well as the provided opportunities for Econometrics students. Triple A currently has many international projects and is also looking for potential future employees who would enjoy working abroad. We were joined by Vivianne Collee, HR & Recruitment Business Advisor at Triple A.

Could you start by introducing yourself shortly?
My name is Roel van Besouw, I am the managing partner of Triple A Risk Finance and one of the co-founders. I have occupied almost all functions within actuarial companies.

How did you end up here? What is your academic and work related background?
I studied Actuarial Sciences at the UvA, after which I started working at Tillinghast, an actuarial consultancy which is now part of Willis Towers Watson. Here I learned my trade, but after 6 years I made the switch to Eureko, which was the parent company of Achmea at the time. I worked there for 3 years,  before starting Triple A in 2006.

 Why did you decide to start Triple A?
At the time, my colleague Tom Veerman and I saw a gap in the market; there was a lack of consultancies which were able to properly execute the implementation for their clients. What I mean by this is that the transition from the strategic side to the actual implementation was not being handled thoroughly. This is where we decided to position ourselves and start our company.

How does Triple A tackle this problem and handle the implementation differently?
This is done by helping our customers with solid knowledge and content. We start by properly understanding exactly what we are trying to implement with our customers, such that we have an overview of the case. Next, we try to implement this with our customers. These changes often come hand in hand with a slight culture shift within the client company.

So, after finishing the consultancy part of the case, do you stay with your client for a short period of time to help with these implementations?
In our opinion, helping our client so that they can now independently implement the new strategy is a part of consultancy. This limits the transfer period in terms of time, meaning it is more efficient for customers. There are projects e.g. Solvency II and IFRS 17 that have a long implementation period but in that case we use different phases with defined deliverables. Since 2014, we have been working with Talent&Pro as a sister company. This is a secondment, with a growing actuarial unit. Sometimes when clients specifically ask us to stay a bit longer to perform more recurring work, we work together with our colleagues from Talent&Pro as well.

How does the development of Triple A compare to the expectations you had beforehand?
I actually remember very well that when we started in 2006, we made a plan to grow towards a workforce of 20-30 people, but I thought that we would never reach this. However, it all went a lot better than expected. I think there were a few important factors for this, the first one being the great working energy we had with each other as a team. The second one is the diverse combination of people, who all had different tasks. For example, we had a small team handling the recruitments, and another small team was in charge of finding clients. The third reason was that there was enough demand in the market for a firm like Triple A.

You mentioned your goal was a workforce of 20-30 people, how many people currently work at Triple A?
Vivianne Collee: We have 115-125 employees, excluding our office in Poland.

What kind of academic background do most of these employees have?
Vivianne Collee: I think about 90 percent of the staff has studied Econometrics, Actuarial Science or something similar. I am actually an exception, having studied Communicational Sciences.

Roel van Besouw: In the consultancy branch, we generally employ quantitively educated people. We also have new branches called Data Analytics and modelling, where we employ people who have studied things like Mathematics, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence,… This branch focusses more on technology and the new opportunities it provides.

What does your life look like outside of work?
Outside of work I am a father of boy twins who are 11 years old. I enjoy playing water polo and attempt to make some music once in a while.

So you still have plenty of time for hobbies?
Yes of course, even though I really enjoy my work. Back in 2006, my 2 fellow co-founders and I all started having kids at the same time. So that was a really fun but busy time for all of us.

How can students distinguish themselves in your eyes? What does Triple A look for in students?
What we find really important is that outside of your analytical skills, you are very curious and eager to learn, meaning you want to learn and discover new things. We also find good communicational skills essential. Especially in the consultancy business, the ability to see issues from your client’s point of view is very important in order to adjust your work to their needs. This combination of skills is what we look for.

How can you tell if a student is curious and eager to learn?
This is usually clear from interviews and conversations we have with potential employees and students. We can tell by the questions they ask.

What does Triple A currently offer students?
First of all we offer the possibility to write your thesis here. This can be done at one of our business lines. We started only with Pensions and Insurances, but have now grown towards Banking, Data Analytics, Modelling,… You can write your thesis at most of these business lines. Once you start doing that here you get help and guidance from the mentor assigned to you, but we also expect you to communicate to us whenever you feel like you need more help. Even if your mentor is working a case and is at the client’s office for example, he is only a phone call away. For working students things are very similar. It is possible for you to be assigned to help with a case, so that you can really start working hands on. Another possibility is to help with Research and Development for a business line.

How many days or hours per week does a working student typically spend here?
This varies per working student. We currently have quite a few. Some are here one day per week and others 2 days per week. If you are doing well, it won’t take long for people to start asking if it is possible for you to start working 3 days. So it is up to the student.

It really depends on the student. For example, during holidays some students don’t want to work at all while others feel like that is the time to be able to work extra hours. We are quite flexible in this.

Do you employ both Bachelor and Master students?
Yes we employ both. First year Bachelor students are very rare, but we have employed Bachelor students in their second year, and every year after that.

What kind of structure does Triple A work with? You obviously started small so I assume you had a very flat structure then, but what does it look like now?
It is still relatively flat. We work with business lines: Life insurance, Non-life insurance, Pensions, Data Analytics, Banking and Risk strategy. This is quite a lot of business lines for the number of employees we have. Our strategy is that once we can focus on a certain target audience, we try to develop ourselves within this domain and connect with these potential clients. As a company we try to have quite a large target audience, while keeping the business lines more specific. Some specialism, like Modelling for example, are used in multiple business lines. We employ some specialists who handle these aspects and work across these business lines.

Does this not overlap with the people you employ for your Data Analytics business line?
Not necessarily. In Data Analytics the focus lies on predictive modelling, but there are other forms of modelling as well. A typical example of this predictive modelling is URM (Dutch: Uniforme Rekenmethodiek). In the branch of Pensions, all clients with a pension scheme should have an overview with 3 numbers: an optimistic, a pessimistic and a basic scenario. For this we build a mathematical tool which we developed in the Cloud. Here we did not only need mathematical and actuarial formulas, but also a lot of IT expertise.

I think that is indeed a typical example of the difference. In Data Analytics we typically have  econometricians who enjoy working with Python and R, but in Modelling there is an even stronger IT background. So these are 2 separate teams, but employees often hop back and forth quite a lot for these tasks across several business lines. This is not only the case for these teams, but over all our business lines consultants get the opportunity to work on an assignment in another Business Line.

Yes, helping different business lines is something we find very important. When you start working at Triple A, you are placed in a business line and you are placed under People Management for mentoring. In return, we expect you to orientate yourself through different assignments for the first few years, and then later indicate whether you would like to specialize in a certain branch. 

When a recruit first starts working here, how much responsibility does he/she get?
This completely depends on the recruit. Like I said, if we see some mentoring is needed this is provided. However, this is still a very flat company with the common goals of helping customers and  developing the employees. This takes as long as the employee wants it to.

So is there no standard package for new recruits, is it entirely personal?
We like to think so, yes. Obviously there is a common path of development which most recruits go through. You start at level 1, from which you can grow to higher levels. Some employees go through this path faster than others, it really depends on the recruit.

You have mentioned that the structure in Triple A is quite flat, how do you expect to retain this structure through the growth of the company?
This is done by creating new cells or business lines with a new focus every time we feel like we are getting too big. Within this new cell, roles like acquisition and Research & Development are then divided across the employees. We also have specific business line meetings once every 3 weeks. This is how we try to get everyone, including the new consultants, involved in recent developments within the company.

And in the long term?
Well creating new business lines has worked fine so far. There are areas where we can grow, although it is not really our goal to double the number of actuaries we employ. We do, however, want to hire new talent to cover employees leaving and to grow at a steady and sustainable rate in all actuarial business lines. In certain other branches, like Banking, we do intend to create larger business lines.

Another long term goal of ours is to expand internationally. We now have offices in Warsaw and Amsterdam, but want to expand to Spain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and England. These offices will be relatively small at first, with around 10-15 employees. This is definitely one of the biggest recent changes within Triple A, our international ambition. So our message to students would be: There is definitely still plenty of work available for you, so feel free to apply with us, but it is not our intention to make Triple A a company with over 1000 employees in the short run.

What do you think makes Triple A pleasant and enjoyable to work at? How do you distinguish yourselves as employers in comparison to other actuarial companies?
I think Triple A offers the combination of a nice career path, where you can really develop yourself, along with the opportunity to work on projects closely with our clients. This is very different from consultancy where you just make a report at your office and then the managing partner presents it to clients. Here we offer direct interaction with our clients. Furthermore, we like to have fun as a company, next to all the hard work we do. We have an annual skiing trip, some barbecues, a lot of sporting teams, and plenty of other events. Lastly we have a Facebook page, and are trying to expand to Instagram as well, so we can also share these fun events.
 

I think apart from that, what really separates Triple A is its flat structure, and that the organisation always thinks in possibilities. We prefer to think how we can make it happen, instead of saying we can’t. It is not unusual for a new recruit to be able to discuss things with our managing partner here. This gives all employees a lot of freedom. Everyone here is very open towards new initiatives from both recruits and experienced employees. This is one of the reasons I started to work here.

Finally, do you have any advice for us as students? 
I personally think that the combination we look for, so knowing the content and subjects well and the communicational skills, is the most important thing for your education. So spend enough time on your personal skills as well.

How do you think we can best develop these skills?
I think by making sure you are active outside of your education. This does not necessarily have to be through various associations, but just make sure you are taking some initiative to do something extra-curricular.

If you are interested in Triple A: Risk Finance have a look at their website, Facebook and LinkedIn pages:

http://www.aaa-riskfinance.nl

https://www.linkedin.com/company/triple-a---risk-finance

https://www.facebook.com/aaariskfinance/

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