The President’s Award – Charles Cowling

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The President’s Award was presented to Charles Cowling on 24 June 2021 in recognition of his thought leadership and indefatigable stewardship of the profession over almost 25 years. 

This is most manifest in Charles’s pioneering and seminal work on discounting and, more recently, in his extensive contribution to the development of IFoA’s governance and strategy. Charles Cowling citation: 

What was the consequential aspect of your work on governance and strategy in IFoA? 

Strategy – Chartered Actuary and VSMD. Our VSMD (vision, skills, mind-sets and domains) strategy is crucial to the future of our profession. We must encourage a new generation of actuaries with broader mind-sets to explore new domains – the Chartered Actuary project is core to this.  

Governance – Galaxy project. In any volunteer organisation it is always a challenge to align the activities of volunteers with the strategic aims of the organisation. The work we have done at the IFoA on the structure of the corporate and practice boards mirrors some of the similar work I led at the IAA. It will always be challenging to achieve alignment of objectives, but I am confident we have made great strides at the IFoA to become more effective. 

What was your most significant paper in the last 25 years?  

I am proud of both these papers  

Funding Defined Benefit Schemes (2004, co-authored with Tim Gordon and Cliff Speed) which caused a huge stir at the time (overflowing attendance at Staple Inn and front page coverage at the FT), encouraging a much greater focus in pension funding on the long-term security of pension promises. Had our recommendations been implemented back then, UK pension schemes would be in a better, more secure, position today. 

Developing a framework for the use of discount rates in actuarial work (2011, co-authored with Ralph Frankland, Robert Hails, Malcolm Kemp, Ruth Loseby, James Orr and Andrew Smith). This was one of the IFoA’s key cross practice thought leadership projects. Its aim was to produce a consistent approach and framework for the use of discount rates across all areas of actuarial work and it was awarded the Peter Clark award for the best paper in 2011.  

You have been serving on Council for 5 terms – what are you worried most about the profession?  

 The Actuarial Profession must change. The IFoA must change. If we don’t change we will become irrelevant and fade away. We have skills which are hugely in demand, but our traditional core areas of work (pensions and life assurance) are dwindling. We need a new generation of actuaries with broader skills, prepared and capable to tackle a whole new set of problems. 

Can you tell us a story from your childhood which inspires you to be what you are today?  

When I was a small boy, we were given a project at the start of school term after the summer holidays: to prepare a short presentation to the rest of class on the most exciting thing that we had done over the summer holidays. Everybody seemed to have something really exciting to talk about, … except me. We simply went camping in North Wales and most of the time was spent playing endless games in the tent whilst it rained outside. At the time I was upset by my lack of anything interesting to say. Later I reflected that I had seemingly enjoyed my summer holidays more than most of my classmates – because I had a great family and we just loved spending time together. I realised then that the thing that mattered most to me was to surround myself with a loving family. I thank God every day for all my blessings, but none more so than for my wonderful family.

What are some interesting facts about you that are not too widely known! 

  • Mercer Chief Actuary, pensions actuary, investment consultant, executive remuneration consultant; 
  • Master, Worshipful Company of Actuaries; 
  • Longstanding IFoA, IAA, AAE volunteer, chaired IFoA Pensions Board & Discount Rate Project, IAA Pensions Committee; 
  • Authored several actuarial papers, regular conference presenter UK, globally; 
  • Chaired Brathay Trust, Manna House charities, governor at 9 schools; 
  • Raised >£150,000 for charities, mainly running marathons, including 10 marathons in 10 days;    
  • Trained opera singer, sung many lead roles and with many choirs including at BBC Proms and backing vocals for Andrea Bocelli; 
  • Played piano in 1968 Cookeen TV advert; 
  • Married to Becky, 4 children, including Tom an actuary 

 

Could you tell us why you decided to be an actuary? 

At school the only subject I was good at was mathematics. I loved numbers and was very keen to have a career with a focus on numbers. I spent many hours in the school careers library reading about possible jobs – becoming an actuary seemed obviously the most attractive. 

Can you tell us the biggest regret or mistake you have made, and what you learnt from it?  

I have no regrets about my life choices although I have made many mistakes. One mistake I particularly remember (see TSC tip 15) was failing to prepare for a presentation – I was using someone else’s slides and complacently believed I knew the subject well enough not to prepare. It was a disaster I became confused and didn’t know what I was saying next. The attendee feedback sheets were rightly dreadful, but I kept them with me in my briefcase for the next 10 years or so, as a constant reminder of the importance of preparation.    

Can you tell us something which is not widely known about you?  

I am training for ordination as an Anglican Priest. This is a 3 year part-time course attached to Durham University, following which, if successful, I will become ordained and start work as a part-time priest. This was never part of my career plans, but in recent years I have increasingly realised the importance of my Christian faith to me and become gradually convinced of the need to embrace a very different but much greater life objective.   

What motivates you today? What would you like to do next in your life? Or what would you like to achieve in your life?  

I have been fortunate in my professional and personal life and achieved more than I ever hoped. I still have a huge passion for the actuarial profession and want to do all I can to help secure its future both in the UK and globally, against a very challenging backdrop. But over the next few years I look forward to deepening my Christian faith, embracing my theology studies and learning how I can become an effective minister to others, both in their own Christian journeys but also in their personal life challenges.