When Robert Benmosche, American International Group (AIG) president and CEO, recently compared criticism of the government’s decision to pay huge bonuses to discredited AIG Financial Products (AIGFP) employees to the lynching of blacks during the civil rights battles several decades ago, criticism was immediate and intense.
Benmosche effectively moved to quiet the uproar by venturing down to the Washington, D.C., office of his chief accuser, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and appropriately apologize, bringing the matter to a quick end.
It is impossible to explain what Benmosche sought to accomplish by linking AIGFP bonuses to Civil Rights-era lynchings unless you understand the man.
It can be understood only by realizing that Robert Benmosche is a take it or leave it type of guy. He took on an impossible job when he didn’t have to, having already received the acknowledgement – even from detractors whose toes he stepped on – that he had done an excellent job transforming MetLife from a stodgy, insulated mutual company into a successful stock company in the late 1990s-early 2000s era without a misstep. He made enemies by rapidly changing the culture at MetLife, according to insiders.
A profile in the New York Times a year ago helps explain the man. In it, Benmosche acknowledged that he’s an “in-your-face CEO.” The author explained that Benmosche looks at the world “from his vantage point six feet and four inches above the ground.” And that “he is a big guy. Big block-shaped head. Big ham-sized arms. Infamously big mouth.”
Beyond physical appearance, the article also noted his somewhat abrasive personality. ‘“People say I use colorful language,” he told a room of people once. “Well, that’s a bunch of bullshit!’”
In sum, that correctly characterizes Benmosche.
Both supporters and critics quickly made themselves disappear recently when asked why Benmosche would make such a remark. At the same time, they confirmed that Benmosche’s quirky style covers up the fact he is a very effective, indeed, gifted, CEO.
Republicans had received the lion’s share of the political bennies when Maurice “Hank,” Greenberg headed AIG. There was a famous incident in the early 2000s when President George W. Bush held a reception in the White House for the industry, and there was a conga line of industry officials, all of whom had given large donations to the Bush campaign, standing there ready to shake the president’s hand.
However, when entering the room, the president walked past most of those attending to greet Mr. Greenberg. “How are you?” the president asked Greenberg, a charter member of the Pioneer Club, Bush’s elite fund-raising arm.