(Bloomberg) — Robert Benmosche, the combative former chief executive officer of American International Group Inc. who led the insurer, once the world’s largest, to repay a $182.3 billion taxpayer bailout, has died. He was 70.
He died on Friday at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York following treatment for lung cancer, AIG said in a statement. The insurer announced in October 2010 that Benmosche had cancer, and the CEO said last August that he’d moved up his departure after his prognosis worsened. Benmosche was replaced by Peter Hancock on Sept. 1.
Benmosche came out of retirement in August 2009 to take over a company reeling from losses on failed housing-market bets, and led the insurer for half a decade. He put New York-based AIG on the road to repaying taxpayers and along the way, the always-tan, silver-haired Benmosche became the most outspoken AIG chief since Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who was forced out in 2005 as the insurer was investigated for accounting irregularities.
“I create so much trouble, don’t I?,” Benmosche told employees at a meeting shortly after he started. “That’s my job.”
Benmosche sold major divisions and focused on U.S. life insurance and global property-casualty coverage. He also sparred with government overseers, rebelled against U.S.-applied pay caps that he said limited the firm’s ability to retain staff, threatened to quit at least twice and succeeded in ousting then- Chairman Harvey Golub with a “him-or-me” showdown.
“Nobody gave AIG a chance back in 2009,” Steve Miller, AIG’s non-executive chairman, said in a September 2014 interview on Bloomberg Television. From Benmosche, “I have learned, one more time, the power of greater leadership, even in the most disastrous of circumstances,” Miller said.
Benmosche was AIG’s fifth chief in five years, finally bringing stability to the top job after a succession of leaders felled by market losses and the bailout. The CEO revolving door after Greenberg included Martin Sullivan, Robert Willumstad and Edward Liddy.
“He’s the best they’ve had since I left the company,” Greenberg said of Benmosche in a 2010 interview with Fox Business Network. Greenberg, who ran AIG for about 38 years, had succeeded Cornelius Vander Starr and took the company public in 1969.
Liddy, the former chief executive of Allstate Corp., was installed on Sept. 18, 2008, as chairman and CEO by the U.S. Treasury Department and voluntarily took an annual salary of $1. He held both jobs until August 2009 when he resigned, saying in a farewell letter to employees that he “had no idea what I was in for” when he joined AIG. “It hasn’t been easy, and goodness knows, it hasn’t been pretty,” Liddy wrote.
Benmosche, whose salary was $7 million in 2010, his first full year, had his own tribulations as CEO, chafing at government oversight of the insurer.
Investors benefited from Benmosche’s turnaround tactics, after the stock plunged 97 percent in 2008, the year housing market-related losses pushed the firm to the brink of collapse. The shares closed at $56.06 on Benmosche’s last day as CEO, compared with $11.39 on the day his hiring was announced.
Robert Herman Benmosche was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 29, 1944. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Alfred University in Alfred, New York, in 1966, where he played on the football team. After college, he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1966 to 1968.
Benmosche worked in technology at Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm, before joining Chase Manhattan Bank in 1979. From 1982 to 1995, he was at securities broker PaineWebber Inc., where he rose to executive vice president and helped guide its acquisition of Kidder Peabody & Co.
He moved to MetLife Inc. in 1995 as executive vice president, becoming president and CEO about two years later. Benmosche transformed the New York-based company into the largest publicly traded U.S. life insurer from a mutual owned by customers.
After retiring in 2006 from MetLife, Benmosche moved to Croatia, where he owned a villa with a 12.5-acre vineyard and had a collection of thousands of bottles of wine. Benmosche wanted to bring Zinfandel wine-making back to Croatia, where the variety may have originated, he told Wine Spectator magazine in December 2009.
“People say, why would you want to live in Croatia?” said Benmosche, who said he spent half the year there during his retirement. “Because it’s a beautiful place and it’s safe.”
He said he initially turned down the AIG job because of the lambasting that his predecessor, Liddy, had received during congressional hearings in March and May 2009 regarding employee bonuses.
“I wasn’t interested in this job, I’ve got to tell you, I said ‘no’ three times,” Benmosche told staff at an August 2009 meeting. “I said to all the key people in Washington I met over the last two weeks, ‘Why in God’s name would you want me to be your CEO? I’m angry about everything you did. There isn’t anything you did right.’”
One reason he took the AIG post was to help restore confidence in the insurance industry, Benmosche told staff.
“It affects me personally because, quite frankly, I still got a lot of MetLife stock,” he said. “And if I can improve everything here, I can make some money here, and I can make a lot of money there, too. And then I can add more vineyards.”