When the news gets out that you've just been promoted to lead a 300-employee division of the world's largest insurance carrier, the e-mails and phone calls usually start pouring in, beginning with kudos from mom and dad. But not if you're John O'Brien.
Recently promoted to president of AIG Environmental, O'Brien received the phone call from his parents, but it wasn't quite what he expected.
"The first thing that my mother thought was that I got fired," said O'Brien, referring to the press release announcing the news last month. "She called me up and said, 'Your father showed me this thing, what happened? Have you been fired?' I'm like, 'No, I got promoted.' "
O'Brien, based in New York, had to explain to his octogenarian parents in Camp Hill, Pa., that, indeed, just because their son John had warranted a mention on the news wires, it wasn't necessarily bad news. When O'Brien explained the issue, the news sunk in: Their youngest, an engineering graduate of Villanova University, had done good.
Now, get this. For O'Brien, AIG was love at first sight, so to speak.
Back in 1992, when he was hired by AIG in Philadelphia, after being turned down for a position by a managing general agent for the former Reliance Insurance Co., O'Brien's closing sentence to his former colleague Julie Hespe after his first day on the job was, "I'm going to retire from this place."
How's that for foresight, though whether he turns out to be right we'll have to see.
O'Brien may be about two-thirds of the way to retirement, and time will tell if he's as good as his word. But in the meantime there's no doubt that his promotion has vaulted him to the top of his career so far--all at a fairly young age.
"My wife says I use the right creams," he said. "As long as I use the right creams, I can still look a little bit younger. One thing I love about the company is that, at each point in my career, they've given me different things to stretch me, and that's what keeps it exciting and keeps you wanting to come back and play ball every day.
Now, after 16 years at AIG and with hundreds of employees under his charge--500 in all if you include those on the claims side--O'Brien is in a position to take the environmental business further than it's gone before, the market and his colleagues willing.
O'Brien's newfound responsibilities are potentially far-reaching, given the financial contributions AIG Environmental can make to the parent company's bottom line, particularly given AIG's reported losses last spring in connection with the subprime housing market.
The potential rewards, of course, are also bigger as O'Brien, who was posted in Chicago for six years before coming to New York about eight years ago, winds his way through the layers of the world's largest insurance company.
Ever the corporate manager, the former executive vice president and senior vice president of AIG Environmental's commercial and middle markets division, isn't shy about deflecting attention from himself to his current and former colleagues. It was they, he said, who helped hoist him to the position he now occupies.
Giving others credit ... it's a tactic every corporate manager knows will serve him or her well no matter how far they get within the organization: Remember whom you worked with and who helped you get where you are.
"I'm only as successful as the people who work in the company and between underwriters, assistants, receptionists, engineers and claims people," he said. "That's well over 500 people who every day go to help clients, which trickles up and helps me achieve what I was able to achieve but I would never be able to do this without them."
One of those people--a mentor, really--is Joseph Boren, chairman and CEO of AIG Environmental, to whom O'Brien reports.
"Everything I know really I've learned from Joe," said O'Brien. "He's a great mentor and a fabulous human being, and he's got a very funny sense of humor and a very simple way to look at the way business operates."
In an e-mail to Risk & Insurance®, Boren said O'Brien was chosen to lead AIG Environmental because of his character, integrity, vision, inspiration and ability to motivate teams of people.
"It starts with character and integrity, without which you can't lead anything," said Boren.
Astute in the ways of business, Boren, a 14-year veteran of the firm, has been the "big bang" behind the growth of AIG Environmental over the past decade, first by applying a corporate sales discipline, then by deepening the company's existing client relationships, and finally by "delivering the entirety of AIG" to the firm's environmental clients, according to O'Brien.
As a result, the past decade has seen AIG Environmental grow from an AIG division offering a relatively narrow product to one distributing its products and services through a wider spectrum of brokers, and one that in some segments penetrates the marketplace more deeply than it ever has.
There are plenty of opportunities still to exploit within the environmental segment, said O'Brien, and, yes, these opportunities exist beyond the "green" trend on which some carriers have jumped recently as the planet warms.
The environmental insurance market, he said, is far from saturated. Take the launch of its Sustain-A-Build program, for example, which offers discounts for buildings certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
New opportunities also abound in the area of carbon sequestration, though specific products for those markets have yet to be launched.
O'Brien said his firm remains open to deepening its relationships with specialty trade organizations like the National Association of Chemical Distributors, the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trust and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association.
"We're evaluating several associations right now, and we have different associations for different products so we're definitely open to that business," he said.
O'Brien also says the prospects for the company's environmental unit are bright. In 1992, when he started, there were just 45 people at AIG Environmental. That was a time when some of the most pressing environmental concerns included the removal of old underground storage tanks from gas stations, a time when AIG Environmental's portfolio consisted mostly of coverage for hazardous waste facilities and landfills.
Since then, the number of employees has grown more than tenfold, and the company's portfolio of environmental products has become more diverse.
"It's been great to see it flourish," he said.
CYRIL TUOHY is managing editor of Risk & Insurance®.
(Read the rest of the People on the Move newsletter from July 23.)
July 23, 2008
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