“The Foundation, and the Flaws, of an Empire” by Roger Lowenstein, December 17, 2006
All Hank Greenberg ever wanted was “an unfair advantage.”
That is the phrase that Ron Shelp chooses to sum up Maurice R. Greenberg, the deposed chairman of the American International Group and the subject of his “Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of A.I.G.,” (Wiley, $24.95), and it would be hard to improve on.
Insurance, Mr. Greenberg realized early, is the game of playing only when the odds are in one’s favor. For instance, if a far-flung customer wants insurance against a kidnapping — a risk that few others will touch — chances are that you can charge a lot for the policy. As Mr. Greenberg did not fail to notice, plenty of overseas executives are kidnapped, but many more are not — and they pay premiums, too.
Throw in a few other “unfair” advantages, like lobbying, cajoling or otherwise persuading governments to do one’s bidding as well as, quite possibly, obscuring some of the truth about one’s operations, and you have the secret of a great insurance fortune.
Accusations of cooking the books more or less forced Mr. Greenberg to resign last year. Mr. Shelp, a former Greenberg lieutenant and troubleshooter at A.I.G., wrote the book ostensibly to explain his old boss’s fall from grace.
He asks some very good questions. One is why Mr. Greenberg would 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 A.I.G. board forced Mr. Greenberg to resign, Mr. Spitzer neglected to charge him after all. Well, never mind. (Mr. Spitzer did file civil charges, which Mr. Greenberg is contesting.)
Mr. Shelp leaves no doubt that A.I.G. was a master at shaping and, at times, bending the rules, but he argues that the offenses that got Mr. Greenberg canned were pretty modest, and notes that reversing the deals in question resulted in a write-down of only 3 percent of A.I.G.’s equity.
The author does not probe deeply enough to resolve the legal issues, nor does he have much fresh news, but that is not his point. Mr. Shelp is more interested in another question: How did A.I.G.’s “unique corporate culture” contribute to its autocratic chairman’s success and — after 37 years at the helm — his undoing?
This gives Mr. Shelp license for telling one of the great unsung stories in American business, namely the origins of A.I.G. …read more
Book Review: Fallen Giant
- Review by Arjun Kondamani, February 8, 2011
“Author Ron Shelp, who worked for AIG and served on a number of the company’s boards, does a great job of delving into individual personalities and their motivations, leaving the reader with a front row seat to AIG’s genesis, growth, and fall from grace.” Read the full review.
Fall from Grace: An insider’s account of the astounding rise and stunning collapse of AIG and its legendary CEO
- Review by Sanket Dhanorkar, December 15, 2009
“In September 2008, AIG was forced to declare bankruptcy, three years after its charismatic leader, Hank Greenberg, was forced out of the company on charges of accounting manipulation. This book captures the unprecedented downfall of a much-revered and celebrated business leader that also paralleled the collapse of a financial powerhouse….” Read the full review.
Businesses are built on simple calculations
- Review of Fallen Giant, 2nd edition, by D. Murali, November 14, 2009
Ron Shelp wanted to write a novel, an adventure story, about ‘a company founded in China, the first reverse multinational, operations in 130 countries, and zany adventures such as employees imprisoned in Iran and Nigeria.’ But the final output was about the original, ‘the amazing story of Hank Greenberg and the history of AIG,’ captured in ‘Fallen Giant’ (www.wiley.com).
The collapse of AIG was much more complex than due to Greenberg’s hubris, notes the prologue to the second edition. Because, “in the complicated international world in which we live, a world where AIG grew and prospered dramatically, every shade is grey.” Read the full review.
Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG, Second Edition, 2009.
- Review by Arjun Kondamani, November, 2009
“Though the title would suggest that Fallen Giant dissects the collapse of AIG, nearly two-thirds of this book is given over to a chronological analysis of how AIG became an insurance powerhouse. Author Ron Shelp, who worked for AIG and served on a number of the company’s boards, does a great job of delving into individual personalities and their motivations, leaving the reader with a front row seat to AIG’s genesis, growth, and fall from grace…” Read the full review.
“Fallen Giant tells the story of AIG’s origins in a traveling salesman and huckster named Cornelius Vander Starr who, with very little money to his name, hopped on a ship in 1919 and traveled to China with the idea of selling insurance to the Chinese—to whom Western companies at the time would not risk selling their insurance products. Vander Starr was a colorful character and the author of the book, Ron Shelp, tells the story of his life just as colorfully.”
- Thomas Wilcox, knoll.google.com, November 28, 2008
“Fallen Giant?” by Sam Friedman, December 18, 2006
When I heard about "Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story Of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG," my first reaction was that I would wait for the movie. (Who would play Hank? E-mail me your casting suggestions!) However, after a quick read, I found the book a rather interesting (and, on the whole, balanced) account of the Shakespearean turn of events that toppled the industry’s most powerful figure—at least temporarily.
Indeed, given Mr. Greenberg’s prominent rebirth at C.V. Starr—the mysterious entity so intertwined with, yet independent of AIG—you have to wonder if the sequel will be called “The Comeback Kid.”
It still boggles the mind that Maurice Greenberg is no longer running AIG—done in by allegations he cooked the books with improper finite reinsurance deals.
Lead author Ron Shelp knows AIG firsthand, having reported to Hank for 12 years in a variety of roles, including “troubleshooter” as worldwide head of government relations, and later running corporate communications and advertising.
Mr. Shelp—who interviewed both his former boss for the book, as well as Mr. Greenberg’s nemesis, New York Attorney General (and soon to be governor) Eliot Spitzer—addresses a number of provocative questions, including:
“At last, a knowledgeable, balanced, and fascinating account of the astonishing rise and stunning fall of one of the most astonishing business leaders of this, or any, era.”
- Steve Forbes, President, CEO, and Editor in Chief of Forbes
“Ron Shelp has captured perfectly the heart of the story of this business genius toppled by shifting definitions of corporate misconduct. A compelling read.”
- Meyer S. Frucher, Chairman and CEO, Philadelphia Stock Exchange
“Fallen Giant is a fascinating account, by an insider, of the times and troubles of one of America’s most famed business leaders and of the great insurance company he led.”
- John Brademas, President Emeritus, New York University
“Ron’s tale of Hank Greenberg and AIG is a rare opportunity for a “personal look” inside the history of an American and global business legend. The value in Ron’s book is his personal perspective of the sweep of the story.”
- Jerry de St. Paer, Executive Vice President and CFO of XL Capital Ltd.