Dollars & Sense: Dorn Swerdlin

Actuaries are not generally regarded as a lively bunch. But Dorn Swerdlin, AM 68, CEO of Swerdlin & Company, has upended that notion, leading his employees through meditation sessions and performing as Elvis at the annual company Christmas party. Here, he shares advice on cultivating a fun work environment.

How’d you get into actuarial science? One of my fraternity brothers was studying for an actuarial exam. I thought it was something I could do with my degree. There’s a set of exams, and the first was just calculus. I passed it. I passed the second test my senior year and then graduated and took a job in New York with Metropolitan Life.

What was that like? I was doing calculations for premiums and cash values and insurance products. It was before calculators. We did spreadsheets by hand on paper.

There’s a joke that no one knows exactly what an actuary does. It used to be I’d have to explain it. Lately, more people know. Since I’ve been in management for so long, if you asked me now what an actuary is, I’d have to think about it.

Have you ever struggled with managing people? When things went wrong, I tended to favor the clients. The employees wouldn’t know I was upset. I was too soft. I didn’t hold them tight enough. I’ve hired people that are better managers than I am. My wife and my son and two other vice presidents are on our leadership management team.

Why do you place such importance on employees’ well being? I had read about the loyalty cycle, that happy employees leads to good customer service and that leads to profits. You have to train people and give them room to grow and develop.

How do you do that? We have a $150 allowance for any employee that goes to personal development. It’s not technical learning. People do art class, exercise or something that’ll help them be a better-rounded person.

How does meditation fit into that? In 1990 I was taught transcendental meditation. It’s very good for your body, mind and spirit. I became a certified meditation teacher under [Deepak Chopra’s] program in 2008. We have taught 18 people here in the office out of 60. I don’t push it. We have a quiet room set up for group meditation.

How else do you affect culture? Every year at Christmas I do an Elvis performance. I’ve been doing it 20 years. I’m just trying to make it fun.

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