Interview with Hamadi Zaghdoudi – Head of Retirement Benelux – Willis Towers Watson
Could you introduce yourself?
Hamadi Zaghdoudi is a Tunisian name. My mother is Dutch and my father is from Tunisia, but I am born and raised in Amsterdam-Noord. After finishing high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do and I decided to study what I enjoyed the most: mathematics. I began studying mathematics at the VU and quickly realized that university level mathematics is very boring compared to the mathematics that we are taught in high school. Nevertheless, I finished my degree in mathematics and was only introduced to actuarial science when I had to write my thesis. I was looking at internships to write my thesis and ended up at Brans & Co. Many years and name changes later, I am now Head of Retirement Benelux at Willis Towers Watson.
What is your function within Willis Towers Watson?
I am the Head of Retirement Benelux. Everything related to advise, certification and finances on pensions is done by the retirement branch. My job consists of many tasks and responsibilities, but I mostly believe in client satisfaction. Hence, my main focus is making sure that clients are satisfied with our services. Furthermore, I am not just a manager, but I am also an adviser and certifier, simply because that is what I enjoy doing the most. It also ensures that I directly experience my impact as a manager in practice and that I am always informed on the state of the business and what clients demand or expect from us. In addition to my job, I am also the chairman of the pensions committee of the Actuarieel Genootschap and I am member of the committee Actuariaat of the Pensioenfederatie.
Pension funds seem to be a hot topic in politics nowadays. Could you briefly mention and discuss the problems we face today?
Many people confuse the retirement age with AOW age. Several years ago, the decision was made to increase the AOW age. This was done because pensions were slowly becoming too expensive, as the number of employed people decreased while the number of people enjoying AOW increased. Nowadays, labour unions are fighting for a different AOW age for people with physically demanding jobs (such as a construction worker). I personally agree with this statement. Looking at my own career, I will probably still be able to have meetings at the age of 70, yet a construction worker will likely not be able to work anymore at the age of 70.
Many pension funds had it difficult financially for the past decade. Since the financial crisis, many people who lost their jobs decided to start their own business. In the Netherlands, these people are referred to as ZZP’er (Zelfstandige Zonder Personeel). In the current structure of our pensions system, these people do not accrue pension.
One euro pension accrual (pensioenopbouw) is cheaper for a 25-year-old than for a 50-year-old. This is because the 25-year-old still has over 40 years to earn interest, while the 50-year-old has a much shorter horizon. However, the structure of the Dutch pension system is such that everybody has to pay the same contribution rates and receives the same accrual rates. So roughly, anyone in the pension system pays subsidies in the first half of their career to receive them back in the second half. This means that someone who becomes a ZZP’er around the age of 45 has been paying for the elderly and leaves the system before receiving any subsidy in return. Now suppose that we decide to end this system of intergenerational subsidies and treat everybody similarly, starting from January 1st, 2019. This implies that everyone will pay the same contribution rates, while younger workers will receive a higher pension accrual and older workers will receive a lower pension accrual. This is fair if you consider an entire career. However, for anyone who has already paid subsidies in the current system, this transition would mean that they will have a decrease in future pension accrual that is comparable to the decrease that one would experience when becoming a ZZP’er halfway through ones career. The most discussed topic today is not necessarily the existence of this problem, but who will pay for the compensation.
Is giving advice about problems like these part of your job?
Decisions are ultimately made by politicians. Lobbyists are talking to these politicians to educate them and help them make adequate decisions. We are only indirectly involved with these lobbyists. Most members of the lobbyist parties are also managers or employers within the industry. We run into them at meetings, where we express our concerns and opinions. However, if someone asks us for advice, we are more than happy to help them.
Do you think privacy is an obstacle in the insurance and pension industry?
The short answer is yes, because in order to do things more efficiently, we need data and if laws and regulations restrict our access to this data, then it becomes more difficult to innovate. We regularly have to jump through hoops to provide our services to our clients and this shows that, in some ways, the rules are overly protective and just making our jobs harder.
What advice do you have for students?
Not many people know what an actuary is or does. Looking back at my own life, I would have studied actuarial science instead of mathematics, had I known that actuarial science existed. My advice is to promote actuarial science and encourage study associations to give presentations at high schools.
Does Willis Towers Watson provide part-time opportunities to bachelor and master students?
Yes, we like to encourage all mathematically oriented students, bachelor and master, to join us part-time. This means that you will be working here for at least two days a week. The compensation is competitive and most importantly, you will get to know the practical side of being an actuary. During your student job, you will probably conclude that you either love or hate being an actuary, which are both fantastic outcomes, since it will help you decide on what you want to do in the future.