Cover Story

Evan Greenberg

A Risk & Insurance® exclusive interview, with insights from Peter Zaffino, John Keogh, Greg Case and Hank Greenberg.
By: | May 1, 2014 • 10 min read

Evan Greenberg oversees a company with $95 billion in assets, operating in 54 countries.

So one might think the president, CEO and chairman of ACE Limited would be stretched to capacity leading global strategy and directing execution.

Despite the vast reach of ACE, however, Greenberg’s appetite for detail is so keen that he could show up just about anywhere.

Peter Zaffino, the president and CEO of Marsh, said he has walked into a room anticipating a meeting with ACE practice leaders or regional managers and found Greenberg at the table.

It doesn’t matter the topic, the audience or the geography. If he can, those who know and observe him say that Greenberg will dive into the layers and seek to understand the topic as well as anyone in the room.

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“He is tireless in his pursuit and it is quite impressive,” said Zaffino.

“His mind is never at rest and it is almost always thinking about our company and our industry,” said John Keogh, ACE’s chief operating officer and vice chairman.

“There is an unbelievable capacity I have noticed in him to seek more information, whether it is company information or more information about the world.”

This May marks 10 years since Evan Greenberg became the president and CEO of ACE. He added the title of chairman in 2007.

In March, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Greenberg in an exclusive interview to discuss his career and personal interests.

Disciplined Underwriting

One might never encounter anyone quite like Evan Greenberg. His intensity, drive and intelligence are immediately apparent.

In conversation, Greenberg displays depth and range and is as animated in discussing his views on leadership and international politics as he is talking about what he treasures in his personal life.

A primary focus of Greenberg’s is the art and science of underwriting.

John Keogh, COO of ACE Limited

John Keogh, COO of ACE Limited

“This is a company of underwriters,” Greenberg said when asked about some of the keys to ACE’s success.

“We are managed by underwriters. All of senior leadership has a very strong underwriting background. We don’t take that lightly.”

ACE’s results support that statement.

From 2009 through 2013, the company recorded an average combined ratio of 91.4. In 2013, a record year for the company, ACE recorded a combined ratio of 88 and $3.8 billion in net income.

Those are superior results. You get them through vigilance, Greenberg will tell you.

“You know that you have to be standing on this business with two feet at all times,” Greenberg said.

“ACE prides itself on being a superb underwriting company, able to attract very smart and passionate underwriting talent,” said Greg Case, the president and CEO of global brokerage Aon plc.

“They are good at deploying their talent around a client where solutions are needed for risks that are difficult to transfer through conventional underwriting,” he added.

“A true leader is someone who recognizes the need for top talent and Evan has surrounded himself with an exceptional leadership team that is completely aligned.” — Greg Case, president and CEO of Aon plc.

Greenberg admits that his expectations are high and that he can sometimes be difficult.

“When I know it’s the right thing, I won’t compromise, even though it may be painful,” Greenberg said, in talking about what he demands of himself and the people that work for him.

“Evan can be demanding but it is always demanding from the point of view of being informed,” John Keogh said.

“He’s somebody you respect because usually what he wants out of you is no more than what he expects out of himself.”

ACE grew significantly in the past five years. It increased net premiums by nearly 30 percent and doubled its market value.

As the company grows, Keogh said its leaders keep a sharp eye out for the impediments of bureaucracy.

The company recently catalogued the number of committees it has to make sure they serve a purpose. Instead of bureaucracy, the focus at ACE is on individual accountability.

“We want to be a meritocracy,” Keogh said.

“We want to reward people and promote them based on what they have done, not based on the politics of who they know or who dislikes them,” he said.

Greenberg said he is loyal to those who prove themselves.

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Keogh said the loyalty Greenberg engenders can be seen in how few upper level executives leave ACE.

“I have been here eight years and there has been very little turnover in the most senior ranks of the company,” Keogh said.

“Not only has he recruited top talent, he has also developed and advanced existing talent,” Marsh’s Zaffino said.

“A true leader is someone who recognizes the need for top talent and Evan has surrounded himself with an exceptional leadership team that is completely aligned,” said Aon’s Greg Case.

“Quite frankly, ACE moves as fast as any company that I interact with,” Zaffino said.

“And this has really been driven by Evan’s leadership. He carefully thinks through the strategy, decides to execute and then moves very quickly,” he said.

John Keogh said Greenberg pushes to get the details he needs to make decisions.

“He is definitely very involved in that company, he is not just some big picture guy,” said Cliff Gallant, an insurance analyst with Nomura Securities.

“Having a highly respected management team beneath him depends on having a guy who can press them and push them. That comes from many years of experience. Certainly his pedigree is unique. There is no one who has quite got his resume,” Gallant said.

As the result of an environment where frankness is encouraged and the need for bureaucracy challenged, ACE is earning a reputation as a company that makes careers.

“If you are a senior manager at ACE, you are asked to do a lot and you are asked to know a lot,” said Gallant.

“All of the executives that I hear about coming out of ACE, are highly respected industry-wide.”

Natural Leader

Evan Greenberg started his insurance career at AIG working for his father, Hank Greenberg, but nothing was handed to him there, his father recalls.

Hank Greenberg, the chairman and CEO of the Starr Cos.

Hank Greenberg, the chairman and CEO of the Starr Cos.

“I ran the company in such a way that I treated everybody the same,” Hank Greenberg said.

“Nobody got special privileges and that’s what made AIG what it was at the time,” he said.

Hank Greenberg said Evan Greenberg took full advantage of his background and went on to distinguish himself through his own hard work.

“He has done a great job,” Hank Greenberg said.

“In many companies, the higher the individual goes, the less they are involved in the business and that has never been true in the Greenberg family.” — Hank Greenberg, chairman and CEO of the Starr Cos.

“I’m very proud of what he has achieved. He certainly has demonstrated that he has the skills, the insight and the maturity to lead a big company.”

Not many insurance leaders earn the same degree of praise from Hank Greenberg.

“In many companies, the higher the individual goes, the less they are involved in the business and that has never been true in the Greenberg family,” Hank Greenberg said.

Evan Greenberg is also an industry leader, sources said, someone who is willing to address global regulatory and economic issues.

For example, he returns time and again to the topic of global financial services regulation and the shortcomings of Solvency II, the European-based financial regulation regime which he views as unnecessarily costly and bureaucratic.

Greenberg is vocal on the importance of the renewal of TRIA, and on the need for a strong U.S. foreign policy.

Few insurance leaders are making public statements like that these days, said Paul Newsome, an analyst with Sandler O’Neill.

“The industry over the last several years lost a number of leaders who would come out and make political comments that would have impacts for the industry,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s completely unique, but he is definitely one of a relatively small number of individuals running big companies who will publicly take positions,” Newsome said.

“He is very comfortable taking his positions on key issues to public forums in an effort to encourage an industry-wide focus, and I have always found him to be willing to listen to opposing points of view,” said Aon’s Case.

Case said that is true not only for regulatory topics but in the area of innovation.

“Evan is right about the need for continued innovation — it is what clients expect from our industry,” Case said.

A Unique Path

After high school, Greenberg eschewed the beaten path and took to the road.

“I spent three and a half years living in a lot of different places and doing a lot of different jobs,” Greenberg said.

“And I learned a few things. I learned it’s not so bad to have nothing,” he said.

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He also learned that anyone who takes their job seriously can find themselves in the work.

“It’s something that someone has the discipline to find, or not,” he said.

After getting his start at AIG, Evan Greenberg rose through the ranks, eventually becoming president and COO from 1997 through 2000 before leaving to join ACE in 2001.

Hank Greenberg says going over to ACE was a good move for Evan.

“Evan decided at one point that he wanted to strike out on his own and I don’t blame him for that,” Hank Greenberg said.

“I think it was the right thing to do. He did it and he has done very well at it,” Hank Greenberg said.

R5-14p26-28_Greenberg.inddA big reason Evan Greenberg does so well in insurance is because he loves the business, numerous sources said.

“As the magnitude, complexity and speed of risk continue to grow, the leadership roles in our industry become even more challenging,” said Greg Case.

“But whenever Evan and I meet or talk on the phone, you can tell he is really enjoying what he is doing,” Case said.

ACE’s John Keogh said that’s also evidenced by the speed at which Evan Greenberg works and how much he packs into a day.

“You have to love what you are doing to be that committed, day in and day out, the way I observe him,” Keogh said.

“You know I think there is no substitute for hard work,” Greenberg said.

“There is no substitute for truly knowing your craft and loving it. To really know it, you have to love it.”

If you don’t have a genuine passion for what you are doing, he said, those who report to you can tell.

In Private

Evan Greenberg is as multi-faceted as the company he runs. He expresses a love of nature and activities that require quick and precise action.

He is an avid skier and horseback rider.

“I am a curious cat and my natural state is not at rest,” he said.

“I love nature and animals. When I am not working in an urban environment you will find me in nature,” he said.

And he’s a blues rock fan.

“I think Gary Clark Jr. is the best guitarist on the planet today,” he said.

Greenberg places a great emphasis on family. In his New York office, family photographs line the book shelves.

“I don’t have the need for lots of friends,” Greenberg said.

“But I have a real need for my wife and children. I love my family and I love spending time with them,” he said.

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John Keogh said that Greenberg picks his spots when it comes to charity work and other activities outside the workplace.

“He will not do something unless he can give it his full energy and attention,” Keogh said.

Despite the high position he holds in business, Greenberg sees himself as “just a guy,” someone who can relate to anybody.

“I believe most people want to live their life with a sense of dignity and a sense of pride,” he said.

“And what you do, not what you may think you do, is the key to life.”

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]