One of the most difficult challenges AIG faced occurred about six months before the seizure of the American hostages at the Tehran embassy in 1979. K.C. Shabani, an Iranian emigrant who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, had worked at a rather insignificant job in California with AIG for nearly 20 years. He turned up in an AIG computer printout in the 1970’s as an Iranian who knew Farsi and would qualify for work in Iran. Greenberg picked him for a new assignment: Persuade Iranian authorities to allow AIG to be the first foreign insurer to operate there.
Shabani spent a year and a half lobbying an old friend, who was a minister in the Shah’s government, to get permission for AIG to open its doors in Iran. More important, he divorced his wife and married the Shah’s social secretary, whose brother was the lover of the Shah’s older sister, who had real influence on the Shah. So suddenly he was in, with regular Saturday tennis games at the palace and the social whirl of Tehran. Finally, in 1975 the Iranian government passed a law permitting AIG to become the country’s first foreign insurer. Shabani was made the manager, and the company did well.
...Then came the Ayatollah (whose) government seized AIG’s assets and threw him in jail.
Greenberg personally took charge of the effort to secure Shabani’s release. “We will not only get Shabani out of jail. But we will get him safely out of Iran.” Greenberg said. “First and foremost, we owe it to him and his family. But to do anything less will send a terrible message to our employees all over the world. It could happen to them as well. We will always make their security and safety our first priority.”
By the time Shabani returned to New York, his hair had turned white and he looked terrible. He said that twice while he was imprisoned, guards came to him, told him to make out a will, gave him the Qur’an to read, and took him outside to a wall, where he was blindfolded. Each time they fired over his head, had a hearty laugh, and escorted him back to his cell.
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Fortune magazine used to periodically identify the “Ten Toughest Bosses in America.” This was a list that virtually every CEO wanted to avoid, but Hank Greenberg was disappointed if he was left off. Direct reports to the bosses on this list get all kinds of reactions—from sympathy to awe.
Once I was late for the kind of lunch you wanted to be invited to, the monthly luncheon/salon hosted by the late John Diebold, the father of automation. I arrived about 10 minutes late and John said, loud enough for the rest of the table to hear, “That’s all right, Ron. We know who you work for. We are glad you got here at all.”
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I remember an incident early in my career at AIG that involved a meeting in Greenberg’s office on the Philippines. Cesar Zalamea, president of Philippine American Life, was there along with eight or nine other executives. We were sitting in the anteroom to the left of Greenberg’s office and he came through the door connecting the two. He had barely sat down in “his” seat (regulars knew better than to sit there, and try to tactfully move those who do, even VIPs, to another seat) when he exploded.
Five minutes of yelling and screaming about this Philippine problem and then there would be a pause to let Zalamea or others give what would be taken as a feeble explanation. The meeting goes on for about 30 minutes, walking orders are issued, and we quietly leave, glad to be out of there. I was one who was not called on and certainly did not volunteer.Within five minutes, I am summoned to Greenberg’s office for the next meeting. It was like the last meeting never occurred. Greenberg was gracious, funny, expansive, and we had a pleasant meeting. There could be several such meetings a day.
After a couple of encounters like the first two, witnessing Greenberg’s seemingly Jekyll and Hyde personality, you either figure out what is going on or you live a very jittery life every day in fear of an encounter with Mr. Hyde. I came to realize, correctly I think, that it was at least partially if not mostly a show. Sure, Hank got mad, but he was also putting on a performance to make a point. He was careful when he put on the show. If it was somebody who would not respond but act adversely to AIG’s interests, he would not do it.