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AIG's new CEO reaches out to Greenberg

Posted On: Aug. 27, 2009 12:00 AM CST

DUBROVNIK, Croatia (Reuters)—AIG to Hank: All is forgiven, we need your help!

That is the message from Robert Benmosche, the new chief executive officer of American International Group Inc., to Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg—the man who built the company into what was the largest insurer in the world but was then ousted, and has since been embroiled with the company in a bitter legal struggle.

Mr. Benmosche, 65, who was installed as head of the company on Aug. 10, said he has been talking with Greenberg for months about AIG, which had to be rescued in a massive U.S. government bailout last year.

Mr. Benmosche said he contacted Mr. Greenberg as a sounding board when he was first approached about the job, and after accepting it he has turned to him for help and support.

The overture may lead to an extraordinary reconciliation between AIG and Mr. Greenberg, who has been a thorn in the insurer's side since he was forced out in 2005. Shares of AIG rose 4.2% in after hours trading to $39.29, after closing up nearly 11%, in a sign that investors may regard the news as positive.

"The world may choose to vilify him. I think of him as having had some problems, but he can help us with the solutions," said Mr. Benmosche in an interview at his villa overlooking the Adriatic.

"I have enormous respect for him. He has built an incredible business," added Mr. Benmosche, who was previously the CEO of MetLife Inc., the largest U.S. life insurer. "I want him to know about the things we are doing; I want to share with him my ideas; I want to get the benefit of his criticisms or his support."

Mr. Greenberg, in a separate interview by phone in New York, said he had known Mr. Benmosche for many years and held him in high regard.

"He is a very able man, who did a very good job at MetLife. If Bob Benmosche seeks any assistance, whatever he needs me to do, I'll be glad to give him."

He added that he hoped to be able to reach an agreement to settle a string of lawsuits that remain outstanding between AIG and himself.

Mr. Greenberg, 84, was ousted from AIG because he refused to cooperate with an internal investigation into the insurer's accounting practices. Until the government stepped in to prop up AIG last year, Mr. Greenberg was the insurer's largest shareholder.

Mr. Greenberg had also taken to publicly bashing those who succeeded him at AIG, rebuking his successor Martin Sullivan for working too hard to please regulators. More recently, he was scornful of Mr. Benmosche's predecessor, Edward Liddy, saying the former CEO of home and auto insurer Allstate Corp. had too little experience for the job.

Of like mind

Mr. Benmosche is the fifth CEO at AIG since 2005, and in Mr. Greenberg's opinion has the best chance to succeed.

"Some, who had been there before, shouldn't have been put in that spot. In my judgment, they did not have the breadth, intellect or experience necessary. Bob has all of that."

Mr. Greenberg, on a visit to the Adriatic coast two years ago, stopped by Mr. Benmosche's coastal villa in Dubrovnik for drinks and went out to dinner.

Mr. Benmosche said he wanted to regularly call on Mr. Greenberg for advice as he tries to rebuild AIG, a process he estimated that would take more than a year and possibly as long as three years.

He said he does not favor a quick sale of company assets at any price.

"You are building value, then you begin to look at how you right-size the company," Mr. Benmosche said. "It is going to take more than six months or 12 months to do this. Whether it is going to take 36 months, I don't know.

"But it's got to be done in a careful, prudent way so that at the end of the day there is something left that is called AIG," said Mr. Benmosche, dressed in flip-flops, khaki shorts and a green polo shirt on his terrace overlooking the Adriatic.

"Just selling this company and getting whatever you can get for it and hope that it covers whatever debts you have, it's not for me. I don't think that's the way to go," he said.

Last September, AIG was on the verge of collapse from massive losses on derivatives linked to the subprime mortgage crisis until the U.S. government stepped in.

The new CEO is charged with leading AIG in repaying more than $80 billion in U.S. bailout loans while keeping the insurance company stable.

Seeks to grow from strong core

As AIG shrinks in the future, Mr. Benmosche said he wants to keep a core group of diversified entities.

"You don't want to have all of your risks in the market in variable annuities, you don't want all of your risks in the fixed income markets and fixed annuities, you don't want all of your risks in life insurance, which is mortality, or all of it in property/casualty.

"So we're are going to look to be retaining a large enough core of balanced risks so that we have a business that can grow going forward and has a chance to make it," the CEO said.

Since taking over, Mr. Benmosche has stopped the sale of the broker dealer group.

He said he had not yet decided what to do with the company's asset management business. "I'm concerned about its value in the marketplace right now," he said.

The fate of the airplane leasing company also was under review. "I am looking at ways we can structure this so we can get more value for what that business is today. Remember that we own more than 1,000 commercial aircraft," he said.

"We have to look at ways of financing the debt on those planes as we continue to take very good, healthy lease income."

The company is still planning initial public offerings for two large life insurance units, American International Assurance Co. Ltd. and American Life Insurance Co., but some question marks remain, Mr. Benmosche said.

"We are continuing to go down the path of preparing them for eventual sale, but the issue becomes their performance and the issue becomes the price, if in fact we sell them," he said. "We are going to continue to look at those, but only when the time is right."