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Shun-Zer "Bill" Chen


M.S. 1967, Ph.D. 1970

President and CEO, The New Era Group

Written by: Shannon Knapp, Ph.D. candidate in Statistics 

The first thing that strikes you when you meet Bill Chen is his positive attitude and overflowing enthusiasm for what he does. "From day one, I put myself out to be challenged; I want to be challenged." He has spent his professional career in actuarial sciences. To those who think an actuary is just a "numbers person," Chen responds, "An actuary is the key structure to hold up a whole building. You need to know a lot to build a building and an actuary must understand all these things to analyze the risks."

Chen did not even know about Actuarial Science until after his Ph.D., when he learned about it from a friend. Like many statistics students, he had assumed after graduating he would go into research either as a professor at a university or someplace like Bell Labs. He requested information about the field from the Society of Actuaries. He learned about the ten actuarial exams and about how actuarial science involved a wide variety of other disciplines such as medicine and law, which Chen found very exciting. And Purdue had given him a good background to deal with the technical part of actuarial science.

Chen started his professional career as an assistant actuary at Liberty Life. In less than ten years, he was a Senior Vice President and Chief Actuary at Great Southern Life. A few years later, he was not only Senior Vice President and Chief Actuary at Columbia Universal Life, but a member of the Board of Directors as well. Then, in 1989, Chen founded the New Era Life Insurance Company with $3.1 million and zero revenue. With Chen's leadership, New Era Life now has "revenues in excess of $220 million and assets exceeding $425 million."

Every day Chen spends his time doing three things: (1) creating marketing and generating revenue (2) solving an internal crisis, and (3) making sure the financial bottom-line is doing well. "Every day in business I have a crisis.... Every crisis is different. Every day is different." While that may sound stressful to some, Chen clearly revels in the excitement each crisis brings. "Doing a Ph.D. helped me learn to think." Chen advises that the research ability statistics student learn in school will help them substantially in dealing with reality. "Statistics taught me how to analyze the alternatives," to make a good decision for how to handle a crisis and when to take risks. Few CEOs have the statistical background Chen has, and he feels it puts him at a distinct advantage.

Despite the leg-up his technical background gives him, Chen stresses the importance of understanding human behavior and how people think. To illustrate, Chen explains how when his company got into the senior citizen market he avoided the use of automated telephone systems. He told his employees, "If a senior calls, you need to pick up the phone." Laughing, he explains that it is not that he doesn't know how to implement an automated phone system, it is that he understood that the automated phone systems most companies use to increase efficiency can be very frustrating to customers, but particularly daunting for seniors. As a result, his company is highly regarded for its customer service and does a lot of senior citizen business. Chen attributes his success in business to his combination of technical skills with people skills. "Many people want to do business with me because I have the technical background and can deal with people."

Statistics is very useful in real life, no matter what industry. "You don't need to limit yourself to working in research or for an insurance company. All companies need to do risk management, and this is becoming a very popular idea. Companies need to minimize the probabilities of things they do not want to happen; it is not possible to eliminate these risks entirely." Moreover, risk is a part of business. "You need to understand when to take a risk in business. You need the courage to take a calculated risk to succeed in business."

To students, Chen emphasizes the importance of learning to deal with people and understanding human behavior. "Psychology and communication courses are very, very critical." Chen assures those worried about job security, "If you are a graduate in statistics, you don't need to worry about job security." Think outside the box, don't limit yourself to your comfort zone. "Keep a positive attitude and excitement for what you do. If you do those things, a beautiful career will come."

Bill Chen received the Actuarial Science Outstanding Alumni Award from Purdue University, Department of Statistics and Department of Mathematics in 2007. In 2008, he was named a College of Science Distinguished Alumnus.

To read more Alumni Profiles, please visit our Alumni Profiles archive. 

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