“Bob Benmosche has hairy ears.” That was my second thought when I realized I was sitting behind AIG's CEO during a breakout session at the 2012 LIMRA annual conference.
My first thought was, “Is that really Bob Benmosche sitting in front of me like a regular person?” Then I saw that he had hair sprouting from his ears and I reached up to feel my own ear to realize that, well, I had a bit up there, too.
That was probably the only thing I had in common with him. Here was a guy who was fighting a public battle with cancer and in the midst of patching up and turning around the behemoth AIG after the iceberg. My biggest concern that day was to make sure I didn’t leave my convention badge in my room at an offsite hotel.
Benmosche stayed on with AIG as long as he could, until his cancer reached his brain. In fact, he left reluctantly when the board asked him to in 2014. In the five years since he took the reins, he reassured people inside and outside the corporation that AIG was a viable entity.
And he made sure the company paid back the $182 billion the federal government gave the company in trade for 80 percent ownership. He took that personally. In the end, the company paid back that plus $22.7 billion in interest.
I am remembering this as we note that on this date in 2008, the great, unsinkable AIG was taking on water and going down fast. Before the Troubled Asset Relief Program threw AIG a line, Lehman Brothers had failed. If that 166-year-old institution could go, anything could. It certainly did not look like AIG was going to pass through the crisis whole.
No one would have blamed Benmosche if he had just shredded the company and sold the pieces off at fire sale prices when he became the CEO. That’s what plenty of CEOs have done when they were called in to manage a troubled company: Wind it down. Pay everybody a fraction of what they’re owed. Pay yourself lavishly. Go find a beach.
In his autobiography released after he died on Feb. 27, 2015, he described how the sharks were circling and waiting to buy pieces of the company with all sorts of brokers looking to get their cut. Meanwhile, he was feeling the backbiting from his own board. And for much of the public, AIG stood for Adventures In Greed rather than American International Group. In the middle of all that, he learned he had advanced lung cancer.
Again, no one would have blamed him if he had handed it over to someone else at that point. But instead he went to various AIG properties to allay employees’ concerns personally. He made sure deals were done right. He brought back the AIG label to divisions that dropped it like a married name after a divorce.
When he died, his former employers, MetLife, Credit Suisse and AIG ran an ad that had three words along with his name and the years he was born and died: Leader. Hero. Friend.
Has there ever been a better epitaph?
Steven A. Morelli is editor-in-chief for InsuranceNewsNet. He has more than 25 years of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and insurance periodicals. He was also vice president of communications for an insurance agents’ association. Steve can be reached at [email protected]
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