When I visited AIG CEO Robert Benmosche at his villa in Croatia this summer, when the Treasury Department still owned a 61 percent stake in the insurer, I made a comment that really stuck in his craw.
“It was suggested to me that you might be taking your victory lap a little too soon ... ”
Immediately, Benmosche’s fuzzy eyebrows shot up, along with his hackles. “Do they think it’s early because they think we won’t succeed?” he demanded. “Or just that we’re doing it and the government hasn't received all the cash back?”
Benmosche is not a man who likes to be doubted, and thus this became a recurring motif throughout our conversations. “Victory lap,” he’d mutter, as we drove up the rocky cliffs to his vineyard on the Dalmation coast or in between bites of lasagna on his veranda. “I don’t know if you’d called it a victory lap.” Then finally, on the morning I left, he began embracing the term. “You said victory lap? We are taking a victory lap. We should take a victory lap.”
Benmosche still hadn’t forgotten it this morning, when he called me from London to crow about the Treasury’s announcement that it was preparing the sale of its remaining stake in AIG. “You were still of the opinion we had a long way to go,” he said. (I really had just been repeating something someone else had said.) “But I knew everything I know today. I knew that I wasn’t taking a victory lap too early.”
Though he thanked America in his memo this morning, the CEO went on to reiterate his statement that the gratitude should be mutual. “That, 'You’re Welcome' [on the cover], I do feel like that,” he said, while waiting for his hard-won private plane to be de-iced. He clarified: “In postmortem, I understand that people are angry about the government bailing out AIG, that people were paying out bonuses and all of that. But the fact is, they gave them the money. It was done. And people at AIG could also have just walked away. I do think people should appreciate that instead; they took the drive and initiative and worked really hard as a company to pay the taxpayer back.”
While AIG has no official “In Yo’ Face, America!” party planned, the company’s regularly scheduled holiday parties will go on. “We’ve been having them the entire time, even when we were owned by the taxpayer,” Benmosche said. Additionally, the company’s top ten executives have been invited to a “big celebration dinner” next week and to the CEO’s villa in Croatia next summer.
But for Bob Benmosche, nothing is more fun than knowing he was right all along. The CEO, who has an aggressive form of cancer, plans to stay on at least for the next two years. “The most devastating part of my disease was I didn’t think I would have enough time to get to this point,” he says. "I feel really good about the fact that I have closed this chapter. It worked out the way I said it was going to work out.”