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AIG attempts balancing act amid pressures

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American International Group Inc. will have to balance shareholder demands for profit and client desires for more product innovation to emerge successfully from its current woes.

The New York-based insurer said four key executives — Commercial Insurance CEO John Doyle, Chief Financial Officer David Herzog, CEO of the Asia Pacific Region Jose Hernandez and Executive Vice President of Claims and Operations Eric Martinez — would leave.

The December announcement came just weeks after AIG posted a third-quarter loss of $231 million. In an earnings call after releasing its results, President and CEO Peter Hancock said AIG planned to cut 23% of its 1,400 senior management positions, with further layoffs likely in 2016.

The cost-cutting moves followed repeated calls by investor Carl Icahn that AIG be split into three separate entities — property/casualty, life and mortgage — to enhance shareholder value and allow it to get rid of its federally imposed systemically important financial institution designation.

Although Mr. Hancock met with Mr. Icahn, no divestiture plan was announced.

However, AIG subsequently said it would sell some of its stake in Chinese insurer PICC Property & Casualty Co. Ltd. in a deal worth nearly $752 million.

The cost-cutting moves have raised questions among some risk managers and others whether AIG is backing away from its tradition of innovative products and services. In fact, some say the company already has softened its focus on innovation.

“You just haven’t seen the innovation you used to see,” said a risk manager who asked not to be named. “It’s been very subtle. I would agree that they are not emphasizing new products.”

“AIG is clearly in a defensive hunkered-down mode,” a broker who asked not to be named said. “People are scared for their jobs; and when you spend that much time behind closed doors trying to protect yourself, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to be responsive to the brokers or creative in the marketplace.”

“They’re reducing their management structure to make it more nimble and, from a risk manager’s perspective, that’s a good thing,” said another risk manager who asked not to be identified. “If there is more access to senior management, that’s a positive. If the consequence of that is almost a commoditization of the product, they will be a less attractive option to the risk managers who deal with them because of a loss of their creativity in crafting unique solutions for large commercial insurance buyers.”

A spokesman for AIG stressed, however, that the company remains committed to innovation in the marketplace.

“AIG continues to be a leading innovator,” he said.

“Whether you look at our lead position in cyber insurance and cyber risk management, the extensive build-out of our engineering capabilities, expanded use of (insurance-linked securities), large property limits, the industry’s first science team, data analytics, and our focus on emerging disruptive forces including the sharing economy, drones, the Internet of Things and driverless cars, AIG continues to be a thought leader in the market and product innovator for our clients,” he said.

“Cost-cutting and innovation are not mutually exclusive,” said John Phelps, director of business risk solutions at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Florida Inc. in Jacksonville. “The health insurance industry is a perfect example of that. AIG senior leadership has to figure out the strategy that will allow them to continue to be innovative and meet marketplace demands while in a cost-cutting environment.”

An equities analyst made much the same point.

“AIG has been an innovative company for many, many years. The challenge will be as it navigates these difficult times to balance shareholders’ need for high margins against the need to invest in delivering value to customers and creating new innovative products and services,” said Josh Stirling, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein L.L.C. in New York.

“It’s something you always need to be very careful about,” said Cliff Gallant, an analyst at Nomura Securities International Inc. in San Francisco. “Looking at their expense structure, it does seem they’re a little bloated and there’s need for expense cuts.”

Still, “I think everybody brings something to the table, and AIG is known for having a lot of management experience and talent, and you don’t want to cut the wrong person. It’s always a risk when you’re going through something like this that you’ll lose some of your competitive edge. That’s one of the chief responsibilities of the CEO — in this case, Peter Hancock.” Mr. Gallant said Mr. Hancock “needs to make those calls on those positions, and there’s a lot of pressure on him.”

One risk manager expressed concern over staff cuts already made and yet to come.

“I am very disappointed to hear about John Doyle leaving AIG,” said Carolyn Snow, director of risk management at Humana Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky. “He’s been a really good friend to Humana, and I’m sure a lot of other commercial accounts. I think his expertise and collaboration will be greatly missed.”