Donald Solow is President of Vista Life & Casualty Reinsurance Company, a Vermont-domiciled sponsored captive insurer focused on the securitization of insurance risks, including closed or run-off blocks of business, with particular emphasis on seasoned portfolios of disability claims, annuities, certain classes of life insurance, workers’ compensation business and long term care insurance.
Prior to this, Don was a Director at Wells Fargo Securities (formerly Wachovia Securities) from 2006 to 2011. At Wells, he was responsible for heading the insurance solutions team, with a focus on redundant reserve financing and life settlements, originating over $500 million of transactions in insurance-related business.
Before joining Wachovia, he held senior positions within the reinsurance industry, including serving as Senior Vice President of ACE Financial Solutions in New York. In this capacity, Mr. Solow managed the life, health, and annuity reinsurance division, and was responsible for sourcing, structuring, and pricing financial and hybrid reinsurance and risk financing transactions.
He became a Member of the American Academy of Actuaries in 1992, and a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries in 1993.
Mr. Solow earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from New York University’s School of Engineering in 1988.
In the last few years, what lifestyle, habit or behavior change has had the biggest positive impact on your life?
A number of years ago, when I established a business, I began to work from a home office, rather than commuting into New York City. This was a major lifestyle change. I was saving three hours a day by not commuting. I was able to put this time into growing the business, connecting with prospects and so forth, but in addition to that, there was more time to exercise and eat healthy. Overall, this had a big positive impact. Don’t get me wrong – the three hours of commuting weren’t entirely wasted. It was an opportunity to read and edit business contracts and, sometimes, to catch up on sleep. But freeing up that time brought flexibility into the day.
When you feel unfocused, what do you do?
Going for a long run is useful. It’s an opportunity to focus the mind on the problem at hand, without distractions of texts, emails, phone calls, and so on. It’s an opportunity to shift the problem around, see it from all sides. By the end of the run, I’ve often decided on a way forward, or at least I’ve figured out next steps, which might be to get more data. I think this would work with any form of steady exercise, whether it’s running, biking, or just walking.
What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?
If they are starting a first job, I’d say this: be humble and understand that, although you may have a lot of book knowledge, you probably have little experience in business. Therefore, make every effort to understand why the business operates the way it does, before you make comments. Don’t tear down a fence until you understand why it’s been put up. Remember also that while your parents may think you’re special, no one at the office does. Try to benefit from the wisdom of the older workers; they may not be experts in the latest technology, but, as a certain commercial says, “they’ve seen a thing or two.” What you think is a great idea may have been tried years ago, with bad results.
Regarding advice they should ignore, it’s the idea that they need to do something they love, that is has to be a “passion.” If that happens, great, but for most people, they should be looking for something that they can do really well, and that they like. It doesn’t have to be an all-consuming passion. You may master something to the point that you’re bored with it; maybe that means you’ve become such an expert; you can sell your services as a consultant. So, I’d ignore anyone telling you that you have to love what you do. Just do it really well.
What is one lifestyle trend that excites you? (could be something like Hot Yoga, Healthy Eating, Wearable Exercise Technology)
With people being in Covid-19 lockdown, more people have to cook for themselves. I suspect this will lead to better eating habits, with fewer calories. Restaurant meals can be loaded with butter and salt; when you cook at home, you use less of this. The meal is healthier and if family members are all participating in the preparation, it’s not only a great opportunity to eat healthy, but an opportunity for everyone to cook, and to think about ingredients carefully. The lockdown may have created a cohort of healthy eaters! It will be interesting to see whether this will have some small impact on the nation’s obesity problem. Maybe cooking at home with the family will become a bit of a trend.
With or without naming names (whatever you’d prefer), who has been the biggest influence in your life and why?
I’d like to answer that question in terms of books and authors. My views have been shaped by a few authors, including F.A. Hayek. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek discusses the importance of the price system, and why planned economic systems are doomed to fail, because the planners can’t take into account the needs, desires, and priorities of the entire population. The book stresses the importance of the individual entrepreneur, who tries to assess the future state of the market and takes actions accordingly. Another influential book was Rand’s The Fountainhead. There’s a great scene where the lead character is expelled from architecture school, and he tells the dean that he’s going to practice architecture anyway. The dean is flabbergasted, and asks “who will let you?”, and the lead character answers “what do you mean, who will let me? Who will stop me?”. When we started our business, we had something similar happen. Some well-respected people told us it would never work, that we shouldn’t try.
What’s one of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned (can be personal or business related)
Sit on your hands! It’s a good behaviour in chess, and in business. In chess, it means that you should consider the position carefully, and not make a hasty move. As applied to business, it means to deliberate, and not to shoot from the hip. I can remember receiving a particularly aggressive (and stupid) email once as a young actuary. The temptation to write back something equally hot was so strong, I didn’t reflect on the situation. I came to regret it. I should have sat on my hands and done nothing until the next day. A day’s reflection on a situation will usually change how you perceive it, and you’re more likely to respond with reason and logic, rather than emotion.
What do you think it is that makes you/someone successful?
I think someone can be successful if they stay focused on what matters. It’s the tyranny of the urgent that hurts us. I would recommend spending some time each day thinking strategically. Who are your customers, and who should they be? Where should your business be in five years? What resources do you need to get there? You’re doing things right, but are you doing the right things? If you spend all day fighting fires, you never have an opportunity to think about the long run.
It’s important also to think creatively. An imagination can go a long way in helping your business. You might want to think about what the world might look like in a few years. Is your business positioned to prosper in that environment? Reading a book of fiction from time to time will help you be more creative.
How do you stay motivated?
First, recognize that there will be days when you’re not motivated. Maybe the project you’re working on has reached a less-interesting phase. I’ve found that putting it aside for a few hours, and working on something developmental, such as a new business idea, can restore energy. The developmental idea might be one I had been thinking about for some time, but not worked on. Spending a few hours on it, followed by a short break, often is enough to get me back to the less interesting project.
Another way to stay motivated is to make a call to a client or prospect. Find out what they’re up to, what their current concerns are. That can get you motivated and back on track. After all, you’re in business to take care of your customers.