Win-Li Toh, who picked up the gong for Insurance Leader of the Year at ANZIIF’s 19th Australian Insurance Industry Awards in August, has certainly come a long way from her early years as a child in Ipoh, then a small mining town in Malaysia.
She enjoyed mathematics, good debate and problem solving at school and was later accepted into Oxford University to study mathematics. After graduating, she went to a careers fair and met two female actuaries from Clay and Partners who would influence the future direction of her life.
“They were really charismatic, eloquent and fun,” she says. They asked Toh to come in for an interview and offered her a job the very same day.
Real world consequences
Toh describes Clay and Partners as a small London-based actuarial consultancy that then employed about 40 people. She was allocated to a team that had just taken on the case of Robert Maxwell. His death triggered the collapse of his publishing empire after it emerged that he’d stolen from his companies' pension funds.
To her surprise, Toh was allowed to answer the phone and help those who had lost their pensions. “I guess it brought home to me that I wasn't just calculating numbers but dealing with real-world consequences,” she says.
After a few years of advising on superannuation, Toh felt ready for a new challenge, and like other young people, she also wanted to travel. She saw an advert promoting a job at Aon in Auckland and decided New Zealand would be a great place to visit for a year. Instead, she stayed for five and a half years.
“Then PwC came knocking on the door. They said: ‘We need someone to learn about injury schemes and insurance and we'll train you’,” she says.
Move to Australia
That’s how Toh got into insurance and moved to Australia. “I really liked insurance. It has many different facets and so much complexity. When I first started, I brought a technical skill set and enjoyed putting together good models to cut through all that complexity,” she says.
“But as I grew up in the profession, I started seeing that a good solution to the more complex problems often requires a lot of collaboration and meaningful dialogue with people with different skill sets. This suited me just fine as I enjoy talking with people. However, I still get pleasure from immersing myself in data and seeing the stories unfold."
Toh appreciates problem-solving and the challenges of insurance. “There are so many moving parts. It's interesting because particularly in general insurance, the landscape is always changing and that brings up new challenges.”
Toh says there is no magical place where you suddenly understand everything, and it all becomes easy. “You never get there. I've never gotten there. I have this feeling that I am not yet good enough. I have learnt to live with this feeling, and I like to think that gives you an edge! You get better and better because you're drawn to get to the place that maybe never comes but you keep improving, learning more, and growing.”
In 2003, Toh joined Taylor Fry, an analytics and actuarial consulting firm, and has been there for over 20 years. She is also vice president of the Actuaries Institute Australia.
She describes her leadership style as inclusive, optimistic and enthusiastic.
“I am told that I bring people along and they have a sense of being part of something that matters, that’s worth doing – and that's enjoyable, even when it’s challenging. I see what each individual person brings and their diverse skill sets. I also love to see people improving,” she says.
Her advice to actuaries just starting out is: “Learn as much as you can from people. Everyone has something different to offer. Be confident. Try different things after a while.
Know what you love and are passionate about. Remember what you're passionate about isn't always interesting. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves because the work is quite mundane. But if it's something you believe in, you will enjoy anything you're doing.”
Toh was the lead author of the Actuaries Institute’s Green Paper Cyber Risk and the Role of Insurance. Released in September last year, it urged government, businesses, and insurers to collaboratively address significant insurance gaps in protection against cyber-attacks.
She embarked on this project after realising that directors did not really understand cyber threats and insurers were not talking the same language as the government.
The nine-month project was meaningful because it gave her the opportunity to talk to a medley of people and bring their distinct perspectives together, she says.
The implications of cyber
On cyber insurance, Toh says: “One of the biggest barriers is the need to keep up with and respond to the constantly evolving threat landscape, and that’s exhausting for organisations and individuals. There’s no ‘set and forget’ when it comes to cyber, and human error remains such a critical vulnerability for organisations.”
She adds: “Insurance will continue to have an important role to play in reducing cyber threats in the future, but I think it’s always important to remind people that the first line of defense is good cyber hygiene and security practices.
“Insurance can offer clear signals and incentives to organisations, in the form of eligibility, pricing and sharing of insights on best practice standards, and the industry is already doing so for cyber.
“For example, in 2023, several big insurance players have taken the opportunity to look at the data they collect on organisations’ cyber security controls and practices and match this to data on cyber insurance claims.
“Combining these datasets reveals some useful insights about what the absence or presence of specific cybersecurity controls and practices means for the likelihood of making a claim on a cyber insurance policy. We’re going to see more of this as the cyber insurance market matures and we get more data.”
On emerging threats for the insurance industry, Toh notes that the insurance industry is already facing the impacts of a changing climate, including bushfires, floods, and cyclones.
“While to date the headlines have focused on those writing property business who’ve been most affected, we’re definitely going to see the entire industry needing to step up when it comes to dealing with the wide-ranging and interconnected impacts climate change will bring,” she says.
“We’ve recently had clear signals from regulators and policymakers that they will be sharpening their focus on climate change risks, including bringing in mandatory climate change risk and opportunity disclosures for corporate Australia, following in New Zealand’s footsteps.”
Toh notes that this year, for example, managing climate risk was formally added to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority’s (APRA) mandate by the government. APRA will now assess the impact of climate risk on the access and affordability of general insurance. It conducted this exercise for the big banks a year or so ago.
With all this going on, Toh looks forward to playing tennis and home cooking but says she’s not great at either. She also enjoys biking and hanging out with friends. And, her family have two pigs.
“They were so cute when we got them,” she says. “They weighed about seven kilograms each. You could hold one under each arm. Now they weigh about 100 kilograms each. We love them dearly, but we didn’t quite factor in the future heft in those early days – not very forward actuarial thinking!”