Servaas Houben works as an executive advisor/manager in the Life Actuarial department of KPMG in London.
What made you come to London?
Studying at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands was the first step for an international career: about one third of the students were not from the Netherlands and education was given in English from the second year onwards. Maastricht University participated in the European Erasmus exchange program with which I studied for one year in Glasgow. After Glasgow, I worked in the Netherlands for four years. Before I came to London, I lived for two years in Dublin where I met my fiancé. She is from Trinidad and Tobago, an English speaking country, hence it made sense to extend my adventure to England. Also, England provides an ideal base for an international career as it is more advanced than other countries in Solvency II.
How do you like living in England?
I have been living for more than one year in London. The first year I lived close to my office, Canary Wharf, and thereafter I moved more in the direction of the city centre, WhiteChapel, the neighbourhood where Jack the Ripper was operating! It is a very international neighbourhood where there are lots of things to do. Everyone comes to London for a reason: career, study or holidays and this usually leads to a faster pace of life than in the Netherlands, which attracts me a lot. The variety in culture is huge: London has one of the broadest collections of art, excellent theatres and a variety of old and new buildings. The Great Fire of 1666 has destroyed a large part of the old city, and therefore there is a larger difference between old and new than in other cities. Furthermore, there is plenty of choice for sporting events: Wimbledon, football, and the Olympic games are examples of this. The interesting thing about London is that due to the size of the city you don’t notice that sport events are taking place, in contrary to Dublin where almost the entire city gathered when something happened in sport!
What are the differences with working in the Netherlands?
Working in England is less structured than working in the Netherlands. This has an advantage in that you have more freedom to plan your time yourself, but has the disadvantage that you sometimes have to adapt your work methods and work longer hours. We usually work at the offices of clients. As a result, you are away from home four days a week staying in hotels, and spend one day per week in the office in London or working from home. I usually have my lunch at the laptop as there is not much free time during the day. During projects, you get to know your colleagues better during dinners. A big difference between England and Ireland/The Netherlands is the language: the level of English in England is much higher, particularly with regard to writing skills. After the first couple of months, it was quite scary to realise that after living in English speaking countries for three years you are not at the same level as natives: on the other hand it is an excellent opportunity to improve. Another difference is that England is a front-runner on Solvency II: international insurance companies view their English division as the ideal “testing area”. The reasons for this are that Solvency II contains features which are already present in the current English Solvency I –regime (ICA) and hence the implementation can be delivered more quickly. Also, most Solvency II correspondence is in English leading to a natural advantage for native English speakers.
What is the role of actuaries in England?
The status of the actuary is higher in England than in the Netherlands, which is partly due to the fact that exam passing rates are low. The actuarial society is much larger here and therefore there are more opportunities to promote the organisation: the website contains many articles and there are many conferences and briefings. London is an ideal location for networking: I am also a member of the CFA institute and GARP and they organise weekly and monthly meetings as well.
What do you miss from the Netherlands?
Sometimes I miss the directness of Dutch people – it is quite clear what they are up to; British people tend to be more reserved. Furthermore, the climate is nice in the Netherlands: warm enough to sit outside on a terrace, and snow in the winter. London can become unpleasantly hot in the summer, but there is not really a culture of sitting outside on a terrace. Most people go to the parks when the weather is good, which are as a result quite crowded. Sport and culture are quite focused on the English speaking part of the world: big events such as the Tour de France and Roland Garros get minimal attention here in the press. Also I miss Ajax being defeated every year in the play-offs for the Champions League and the (Amsterdam) irritation that follows.
What things aren’t you missing?
What I don’t miss is the fact that many Dutch people complain a lot. Londoners however just get on with it. I believe English people are more polite than Dutch people: they are not loud and stand on the right hand-side of escalators so that others can pass. In the Netherlands it is often the opposite. London compared to the Netherlands is more ideal for international connections making it easier to travel. Finally, I haven’t come across anyone collecting stamp cards in supermarkets! What a relief!
What does working abroad mean to you?
To broaden yourself both as a professional and as a person, you have to start from the beginning again, but if you get the feeling you are heading in the right direction, that is a tremendous feeling!
This article was also published in the Dutch actuarial magazine “De actuaris” as per 18 May 2011