One morning some years ago, I dialed up AIG with the mad idea, driven by a clueless publisher who thought the likes of Maurice Greenberg was easily accessible, that I could reach him. I told the p.r. flack at the other end I wanted to interview "Hank" for a column I was writing. There was a prolonged and painful pause.
"You mean," he intoned, "you want to interview 'the Chairman?' "
And, yes, he did intone the words, as though I'd asked for an audience with the Almighty, which I guess I had. I'm still waiting for the callback.
I was reminded then, as now, of the 19th century Irish verse by the poet Thomas Moore: "Oh breathe not his name." Such was the man's grip on his company, such was his power, such was the shock and awe he instilled, that to even utter his name was apparently, somehow, risky.
I bring this up because the now 82-year-old, banished insurance icon seems to be staging a comeback, as if he'd ever really gone away. First, there was the news that Eliot Spitzer, the avenging angel of New York politics of late, had abruptly dropped criminal charges against Greenberg, this after hounding him off the 37-year leadership of the company he put on the international map. Civil charges are still pending.
Then there was Greenberg's physical reappearance. Reportedly, he packed 400 people into a Manhattan conference room not so long ago for a joint meeting of the Association of Professional Insurance Women and the New York CPCU Society chapter. The always feisty Greenberg said, among other things, that he'd have a bit to say about the issue of insurance regulation in the not-so-distant future. And about a certain insurance regulator as well, no doubt.
Mr. Chairman never suffered fools gladly and never abided the oversight of state and federal regulators, as well as corporate governors, whom he routinely and arrogantly dismissed as knowing a good deal less about insurance than he did, which contributed to his downfall. We eagerly await his next pronouncement.
Then, too, there was the publication of this new book, "Fallen Giant/The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG," by Ron Shelp and Al Ehrbar, Shelp being a former Greenberg aide. In a New York Times review of the book, says book critic Roger Lowenstein, Shelp raises some very good questions, such as:
"Why (would) Mr. Greenberg risk his $3 billion fortune on some 'fairly modest fiddling?' Another is this: What did Eliot Spitzer, New York's attorney general and now its governor-elect, have against Mr. Greenberg, whom he all but accused of criminality on Sunday morning television? Then, after the AIG board forced Mr. Greenberg to resign, Mr. Spitzer neglected to charge him after all."
Anyhow, welcome back, Mr. Chairman. Now, about that interview . . .
Footnote: Eugene F. Wolters died in January in Cincinnati, his home of many years. He was 75. Gene was a longtime editor and for many years the editor of the FC&S Bulletins, a virtual bible of policy interpretation for property/casualty companies, agents and brokers. He joined the publication in the mid-'60s and became editor in the early '80s. He was in every way an elegant man--in his writing, in his dress, in his quiet humor, and in his bearing and speech (he was, in a parallel life, an actor). Gene guided his publication through some of its more difficult years, when circulation was on the decline due to industry consolidation and because traditional print journals like his were coming to grips with the electronic age. He leaves behind his wife Catherine and three children.
TOM SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for 40 years, is managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, of Baldwin, N.Y.
March 1, 2007
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