Oct. 15--A local group designed to support black executives and managers around the country started off Monday with a keynote speech from a business leader recently chastised for racially insensitive remarks -- Robert Benmosche, chief executive of American International Group Inc.
Benmosche spoke at Chester Engineers in Moon on Monday to kick off the inaugural event of the African-American Leadership Institute, a group started by Chester CEO Robert Agbede. Benmosche explained his leadership philosophy and how he used it to transform AIG from the insurance company at the center of the 2008 financial crisis to a profitable company that paid back its $182 billion government bailout in full.
He briefly addressed the comments that drew fire from critics last month and a call for his resignation. Benmosche was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 23 comparing outrage over bonus pay to AIG employees as bad as race-baiting in the South decades ago.
The uproar over bonuses "was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that -- sort of like what we did in the Deep South. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong," Benmosche said in remarks that the Journal published.
During his talk on Monday in Moon, he mentioned the incident while taking a question from the audience on the company's ability to get positive news reports for its recent success.
"If we do anything slightly wrong -- OK, you saw the mistake I made -- it blows right up. There's still a very huge amount of anger in certain parts of the public here in the U.S.," Benmosche said.
Benmosche met on Friday with Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, who called for his resignation and apologized, according to several news reports.
AIG was criticized for giving out more than $100 million in bonuses after it was bailed out by taxpayers and while the economy was struggling to overcome a financial crisis. While employees did give back some of their bonuses, the bailout program's government watchdog named the company as one of the repeat offenders in giving out excessive pay for several years immediately after its bad bets nearly collapsed the national economy.
Tim Stevens, chair of the Black Political Empowerment Project activist group, attended the speech and said Benmosche used a "poor analogy" with his initial comments. Stevens declined further comment on the issue, saying he wasn't aware of it until a reporter mentioned it to him.
Agbede said he did not consider asking Benmosche not to come, although he could have if he wanted to. He set up the event with the help of George L. Miles Jr., the former chief executive officer at WQED who is a board member at both companies and vouched for Benmosche after his controversial remarks.
Agbede said he wants his group to help organize meetings where black leaders can learn from the experiences of others. Some came from as far as Florida to hear Benmosche speak Monday. They can learn from Benmosche, who has black people among his executives and is trying to make his company's leadership more diverse, Agbede said.
"I look at what people do and not what they say. I don't base my life on sound bites," Agbede, noting that Benmosche went out of his way to address the controversy at a dinner with Agbede on Sunday night. "A good leader doesn't run away from issues."
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org
(c)2013 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)
Visit The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) at www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib
Distributed by MCT Information Services