Dominik Briault on actuaries in estate planning

For actuaries involved in the pricing and design of life insurance products, the sales process can be a bit of a mystery. Dominik Briault, FCIA, has seen both sides of the equation, first as a pricing actuary and now as an employee of an estate-planning organization. He joins us to share his experiences and provide advice for others looking to enter this non-traditional area of practice.

Fievoli: Welcome to Seeing Beyond Risk, a podcast series from the Canadian Institute of Actuaries. I’m Chris Fievoli, Actuary, Communications and Public Affairs at the CIA.

In this episode, we will once again be featuring a CIA member who is working on what we may call a “non-traditional” area of practice. Dominik Briault is currently employed with Feigelsohn Kellar, which is a transition planning firm. We’ve invited Dominik today to tell us a bit more about this type of work and how his career led to this role.

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Briault: Thanks for having me, Chris.

Fievoli: Maybe tell us about your actuarial career before you entered this current role.

Briault: Well, I started my actual career in the early 2000s. I was actually, I would say, in a similar career pathway that most actuaries are which was that I got the benefit of having a summer job at London Life back when I was in my university days, and through many different things was full-time back at London Life when I graduated, and after that, I spent 15 years there in different pricing roles.

So, I worked in pricing universal life products, I worked on pricing segregated fund products. I even did some work on the pension plan for the employees that we have down there. And I spent the last six to seven years of my career at – back then it would have been Canada Life and Great-West Life together – in the role that we called actuarial marketing. The sense of that role was to provide actuarial support to our advisors for the sale of life insurance products.

And basically being at the forefront of helping train our advisors, train our wholesalers, but also be doing meetings with clients on behalf of advisors in order to help those clients understand the products that they were about to purchase.

Fievoli: Tell us about how you made the transition from that role to working for this firm now. How did that opportunity come up for you?

Briault: Well, the last role that I had at Canada Life again being an advisor-facing role was basically an opportunity for me to see the sales process, to see what most people in insurance companies don’t get to see, which is how products are actually being sold and how products are being bought, which are products that I was used to creating.

And the interesting part was through that work I was introduced to a firm called Feigelsohn Kellar, which is a life insurance advisor shop in the Greater Toronto Area that was doing some very interesting work, and work that I hadn’t seen a lot from other advisors across the country and through discussions through work to basically come and work on cases helping them and so on.

They came to see that having an actuary in their shop could actually be value-added for them and value-added for their clients. And the opportunity came about to join their firm on a full-time basis. And I jumped on the opportunity at that time.

Fievoli: Now we noticed your company brands itself as a transition planning firm. Can you tell us what that means? And more specifically, how do actuarial skills help with this type of work?

Briault: In a transition planning firm, the vast majority of our clients, as funny as it sounds, don’t necessarily need the insurance. The insurance is not there in the traditional way, in that there are basically clients of wealth that are running their own private corporations, that are running real estate businesses, and the intent is on the family business to stay within the family for the future generations.

So, most of our clients view themselves as stewards of the family wealth, not necessarily as consumers of that wealth. So, when you put that lens on, really, the planning that we do for clients and the work that we do for clients is really to help them transition the family business from themselves to the next generation.

We help them prepare the next generation for that transition and we help them create a process for the transition that is as tax efficient as possible. And when you think about that, the most tax-efficient way of transitioning wealth or transitioning assets from one generation to the next always comes down to life insurance as being a good idea.

But once again, it’s not because these clients need insurance in case they get hit by a car because there’s enough wealth in the system that that could be handled with. It’s actually used for a much more long-term objective than purely a short-term debt risk.

Fievoli: OK. Interesting. Maybe you could share with us some of the challenges that you faced moving into this role from a traditional actuarial job?

Briault: As most people that are listening to this would know, when you’re an actuary within a life insurance company, you get to be very good and very knowledgeable on the design of life insurance products. The risks behind the life insurance products, the risk that the insurance companies are trying to manage, the financial reporting that life insurance companies have to do, how do profits emerge, and so on.

The one piece that, as actuaries, we are often lacking in the sense of helping private company clients is we don’t necessarily get thought a lot about what corporate taxation looks like for a private company, what does trust law look like for private companies, because a lot of our clients will use trusts in order to manage the passing of wealth to the next generation.

Even what does family law look like? Because, again, a lot of these families, when the second generation starts looking at relationships and marriages and so on, they always have the view of trying to protect the wealth against a potential divorce and their next generation. And what are the family laws? What does the family law say? And what are planning opportunities around that?

So, the biggest challenge while leaving the life insurance company was, as funny as it sounds, to broaden my knowledge and my expertise into being a lot more than simply a life insurance expert and being able to talk about every single piece of the day-to-day life of private company owners that they get to see. And that actually matters to them.

Fievoli: Yeah, I certainly remember from my days in insurance. We did definitely understand the product side but beyond that how it was used and the different applications, you know, that sometimes that was a bit of a mystery.

Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you have learned about the insurance sales process specifically that maybe you didn’t know where or perhaps didn’t appreciate back when you were working for an insurance company.

Briault: Yeah, and the funny part about that one, Chris, is I’m going to leave out of that conversation the general planning around the client. And I’m going to go on misconceptions that I had from being in Head Office and seeing the sales process and things that I never really appreciated.

First, when the client signs a life insurance application, Head Office will perceive that as the client having decided to purchase life insurance, but in the reality of it, that is far from being the case. Most especially in the high net worth market – when a client signs an application, all they have agreed to is to go through the medical testing to see if they’re insurable or not and to see what the numbers could look like.

And they haven’t made their decision at all, as far as the purchase of the life insurance product. They’ve just decided to explore it. And that is the one surprising thing that I’ve seen over the past five years and being out in the field. The second surprising part is – and that may not be as surprising for actuaries that work at life insurance companies –people don’t think about insurance.

They really don’t. They don’t think about life insurance, they don’t want life insurance. They feel that buying life insurance is a waste of money; that there are better ways to invest their assets themselves than to buy life insurance. The of the advisor needs to be clear and is very critical in the sales objective of life insurance companies because more and more, I’m seeing the reason why people are saying that life insurance is sold and not bought.

Because no client comes in – especially in a large case market –to see a life insurance agent and say, “I need insurance,” that just doesn’t happen. Insurance is something that is sold, that is basically proven to the client where it fits. That is proven that it’s an intelligent decision on their part beyond to help them with all their family objectives, to help them with their business objective, and everything else going forward. And the client decides to proceed based on that. But the client will always be reluctant at first because they will always think that insurance is a bad idea.

And the last piece that was surprising also from a sales process, especially in a large case market, I was expecting clients to want to understand everything there was to understand in regard to the life insurance policy or what they were about to purchase in order to make the decision to actually make their purchase.

And that’s turning out to be quite false. Most high net worth clients look at the purchase of life insurance the same way as they look at any business deal opportunities that they have going forward, which they have their list of questions so that they understand the risk. They have their experts, their accountants, and their lawyers to drill down to make sure that there is nothing flagrantly wrong with the proposal.

But at the end of the day, the client will make their decision based on the relationship that they have with the people around the table and whether they feel comfortable that nobody’s trying to take advantage of them. And if they feel comfortable that that’s the case and that the proposal makes sense for their accountants and their lawyers, they will proceed, and they won’t necessarily try to understand everything they need to understand in order to make that decision.

And that, I’ve always found quite surprising from business owners that their capacity to make quite important decisions with what I would consider not necessarily to be all the facts in front of them, and that is one surprising outcome of this journey of the past five years.

Fievoli: Yeah, that’s certainly a different perspective.

Let’s wrap up. Can you give us some advice for somebody who would like to do what you’ve done, which is to make a similar career change and move into something that is, you know, non-traditional actuarial work?

Briault: The very cliché part that I could say is, and we all know that the CIA has made many presentations about it as well, to emphasize the need for actuaries to work on their communication skills.

Communication skills. Not just data or data communication, but business communication as well. And that is a must in what I do. We have to be able to sit with the client and be able to understand what we’re being told, even though what we’re being told is not black and white.

And be able to talk to that client in a way that they will understand. Even though we are talking about stuff that we are experts in, we can’t have an expert conversation with the client. We need to make it so that the client understands what we’re talking about.

So, in my mind, I know that when I was offered my role in actuarial marketing services back at Canada Life, I hated doing presentations. I always hated doing presentations. I never felt I was good at them, and I had a business leader that basically told me that he believed that I could be a great presenter if I decided to work on it. And I took his advice, jumped in with both feet, and basically went and did my first presentation a couple of weeks later and built my skills from there.

I guess my one piece of advice to actuaries looking to expand their knowledge or expand their skills is: don’t be scared. If you have an opportunity to learn something new, even though it’s not actuarial in nature, go ahead. Jump with both feet and try it out. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work out and you move on to something else. But if you don’t try it, you’ll never know.

Fievoli: That’s great, couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks once again for joining us on the podcast today.

Briault: Thanks for having me, Chris. It was a pleasure.

Fievoli: We now have over 100 episodes in our podcast series over the past three years, so we certainly encourage you all to subscribe, and you can do so through whatever platform you use to get your podcasts. We’d like to hear from you. If you have any suggestions or episode ideas, you can send them to podcasts@cia-ica.ca. As well, we’re always looking for content on our Seeing Beyond Risk blog. If you have some ideas you’d like to share, please contact us at seeingbeyondrisk@cia-ica.ca.

Until next time. I’m Chris Fievoli and thank you for tuning in to Seeing Beyond Risk.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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