Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A book about AIG

For those who have an interest in entrepreneurship, or the history of the insurance industry, or just the recent business/regulatory history of the United States, I'd like to recommend a book, FALLEN GIANT: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG (2006).

The book is the work of Ron Shelp "with Al Ehrbar." As usual that formulation means that Shelp is the insider guy, but Ehrbar is a professional writer who helped Shelp put this into shape for publication.

Shelp was a trouble-shooter and righthand man for Greenberg in the 1970s and 1980s. The book isn't a corporate PR department style puff piece, though. I don't think a puff piece would include this anecdote, about the kitchen for the company headquarter's dining room.

"At one point [circa 1981] there was an equal opportunity suit threatened by an Irish waitress against AIG because the dining room had exclusively Chinese waiters. To make matters worse, allegedly the Chinese weren't all legal immigrants. So a group of Irish waitresses were hired. They all quit within a relatively short time span because the Chinese made their lives absolutely miserable. I don't know what they did back in the kitchen, but it worked. Today, there are still all Chinese waiters but a few Chinese waitresses as well."

Balancing the Chinese with the Irish? It sounds like the recipe for a transcontinental railroad, not a personnel policy for a major corporation in the 1980s.

Just one more anecdote, then I'll leave you to discover the rest of this book for yourself. Some time in the early 1970s, AIG hired Tommy Corcoran as a lobbyist.

In 1975, Hugh Carey became Governor of New York, and a fellow named Matt Nimitz ran Carey's transition operation. Matt's office while he was doing this was in NYC, not Albany.

Anyway, Corcoran called Nimitz and said, "I am calling on behalf of AIG and we are very interested in talking to you and the Governor-elect about who the next State Insurance Commissioner will be."

Nimitz replied that he was busy.

Corcoran: "No problem, take this telephone number down and call me when you are free. It is a pay phone in Times Square and I will stay here until I hear from you!"

Corcoran was an old man -- and something of a legend within the Democratic Party. He had been part of the brains trust of FDR, and later of LBJ as well. A Carey appointee wasn't going to leave him waiting at a phone booth in Times Square. [Of course, this wouldn't work today, everybody has a cell and everybody knows that everybody has a cell.]

Nimitz made time for him. Later, Nimitz told Shelp, "I actually doubt now that he really was at a Times Square phone booth," but the ploy got Corcoran into Nimitz' office, and "in fact we chose an excellent insurance commissioner whom Hank and others felt comfortable with."

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