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Sullivan credited for seeing AIG through rocky period


Industry observers hold Martin J. Sullivan in high regard despite his abrupt dismissal earlier this month as president and chief executive officer of American International Group Inc.

AIG's board removed Mr. Sullivan during an emergency board meeting and named Robert B. Willumstad, the insurer's chairman, as the next CEO.

Observers say Mr. Sullivan did well in steadying AIG during the tumultuous period following the forced 2005 departure of former Chairman and CEO Maurice R. Greenberg. Additionally, observers say many problems Mr. Sullivan faced either were inherited or largely out of his control.

"I think Martin did an outstanding job in steadying a ship that had come into some really rough waters over a period of time," said Lance Ewing, vp-risk management for Harrah's Entertainment Inc. in Cordova, Tenn.

"Anything that could possibly have gone bad, did," said Mr. Ewing, but Mr. Sullivan handled matters like a "consummate gentleman. Certainly from a risk manager's point of view, he was a steady voice."

While Mr. Sullivan failed to get "his arms around the balance sheet," he was "put in a tough spot," said John Wicher of John Wicher & Associates in San Francisco.

During his tenure that began in March 2005, Mr. Sullivan presided over financial restatements and two straight quarterly losses, including AIG's $7.81 billion loss for the first quarter of this year.

"Hank Greenberg was forced out by the regulators in a pretty heavy-handed way, so there you're Sullivan and your mentor's been squeezed out, you have regulators breathing down your neck," said Mr. Wicher. "It has nothing to do with him. It has to do with the circumstances."

Stewart Johnson, a portfolio manager at Philo Smith & Co., a Stamford, Conn.-based boutique investment bank specializing in insurance, said, "I do think whether Sullivan were in the driver seat or Hank Greenberg were in the driver seat, the problems they were having would have manifested themselves regardless."

It would have been "virtually impossible for anybody to step into (Mr. Greenberg's) shoes and do what he had done," said Myron Picoult, an independent insurance consultant.

"I always felt when it was time (for Mr. Greenberg) to move on, it was going to have to be several people that would have to pull (AIG) together," Mr. Picoult said.

"There has to be questions asked about the board and their input, their oversight" of what happened at AIG, Mr. Picoult said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sullivan will not leave AIG empty-handed. According to the firm's 2008 proxy statement, he was to receive termination payments and benefits of more than $35 million as of Dec. 31, 2007.

An AIG spokesman said the precise amount of Mr. Sullivan's severance package had not yet been calculated.