An Interview With Former American International Group Inc (AIG) CEO Hank Greenberg

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Hank Greenberg stormed the beaches of Normandy, took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, and returned home to spend five decades building American International Group Inc (NYSE:AIG) into the world’s largest insurance company. He retired in 2005 as a multi-billionaire.

Three years later, the company collapsed. He says he lost 90% of his net worth.

American International Group Inc (NYSE:AIG)Few people know as much about the global financial system as Hank Greenberg, and few are as angered about the 2008 Wall Street bailouts (he’s suing the government for $25 billion.)

Last week, I sat down with Greenberg to discuss AIG’s early days, its rise to power, and its 2008 collapse. Below is the full interview (34 minutes — transcript follows):

Morgan Housel: Hi, I’m Morgan Housel from Fool.com, and with me today is former Chairman and CEO of American International Group Inc (NYSE:AIG), Mr. Hank Greenberg. His new book, The AIG Story, chronicles the rise and growth of AIG, including the fall and bailout in 2008.

Mr. Greenberg, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

Hank Greenberg: Thank you.

Morgan Housel: Why now? You left AIG in 2005. AIG’s downfall and bailout were more than four years ago. Why now to write this book?

Hank Greenberg: Well, several things. First of all, I was busy fighting a lot of lawsuits with AIG, and that took a lot of time.

Second, getting all of the facts as to what happened in the bailout and why, and getting all that documented so that, as you see in the book, everything is documented. There is no area that we left uncovered — just our view, not documented what actually happened. It took several years to get that.

Morgan Housel: What I liked about the book is that it spent most of the time on the early days and the growth of AIG during its heyday. I think what’s unfortunate is that for a lot of Americans the history of AIG begins in September 2008.

Hank Greenberg: That’s exactly right.

Morgan Housel: What was AIG’s key to success during its heyday?

Hank Greenberg: Many things. First of all, we had a culture that was quite unique, and I think a lot of it was also when we started. Starr died in 1968. I became the head of the company in ’67, and the people around us then, most of us at the very senior level were veterans, had been officers of the military, so there was a separate culture that was just unique; almost a military-like culture of discipline.

We attracted the best and the brightest, people who could live with a very high-powered environment. We were totally committed to building a great company, and we did. It was the largest insurance company in history. The largest in history, in 130-odd countries; it didn’t happen by accident. The planning and the execution were great.

Morgan Housel: You talk a lot about the culture of success. What other publicly traded companies today do you admire, that are doing things right?

Hank Greenberg: I think one of the companies now public was a part of AIG called AIA, in Hong Kong. Its market value today is almost that of AIG. It was wholly owned by AIG. I just had lunch with the guy running it, the CEO, yesterday. The company is a replica of what AIG was.

Morgan Housel: You’ve been in this business for a long time, some 40-50 years. How is the global economy different today from what it was when you were starting and growing AIG, several decades ago?

Hank Greenberg: Much different — it’s a good question. We were first movers in many countries. Trade in services didn’t exist when we were building AIG. We traded with other countries for goods, but services they looked askance at you and said, “WTO doesn’t cover services.”

Banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, had to fight to get into a country and trade. I was on the president’s advisory board for trade negotiations. I had to first convince our own government that we ought to be negotiating trade in services.

We finally did. It took a long time, and even then many countries were very stubborn in opening their markets. You had to fight to get into these markets. That was one of the major differences; the amount of time that we had to spend in opening markets.

Then as a first mover, you had an advantage. We could bring things, products, in countries that never had those products before — insurance products. It was an exciting adventure. Of course, we were very good at product innovation. The world changes all the time; new opportunities arise. If you’ve got the people and the vision you do well, and we did.

Morgan Housel: If Hank Greenberg was 30 years old today, could he start and grow a new AIG like you did 40-50 years ago?

Hank Greenberg: I’m doing it.

Morgan Housel: You’re doing it with your assets at C.V. Starr.

Hank Greenberg: Yeah. Yeah.

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