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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Maurice Greenberg

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-05

Maurice Greenberg isn't aging.

Once a week, he hastens to a discreet facility on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There, the chairman and chief executive of C. V. Starr & Company Incorporated works out on fierce-looking machines.

"It's called the 'slow burn revolution,'" Mr. Greenberg said. "It involves half an hour of slow extreme exercise at Fred Hahn's 'Serious Strength.' I have always been addicted to exercise. The effect on your metabolism is incredible. I work out until there's muscle failure. I pull down as much as 320 pounds on a machine. This method doesn't build bulk - it builds strength."

It also seems to engender serenity and youthfulness. At 81, Mr. Greenberg looks at least two decades younger. And his unlined face betrays no clue that he has lived through the worst year of his life: the board of American International Group - the Fortune 500 Company that Mr. Greenberg built almost single-handedly into the world's biggest insurance and financial services institution - forced him to retire in 2005.

The AIG board acted in the wake of a campaign by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer alleging violations of insurance and securities laws. After a subsequent investigation, however, no charges were presented to a court, and Mr. Greenberg was not held responsible for any crimes.

"I always thought of myself as a farm boy who made good - and power and prestige never went to my head," Mr. Greenberg said, touching on his childhood and early youth in upstate New York when he would rise at 4:30 every morning, first to check his trap line and then to milk cows.

"I find the recent actions strange. I'm not suggesting if there's some wrongdoing that it should be forgotten because you've done good things in your life," he said. "But before you're condemned, there should be allegations in a court of law. What motivated those who attacked me? There are some things I'd like to say but cannot say at this time. I know that I did nothing wrong. I have enough confidence in my country that ultimately I will be vindicated."

How has he coped with his setbacks?

"Of course it's not been easy," Mr. Greenberg said. "I built the company from a small, boutique insurer to one with 93,000 employees around the world, $100 billion in revenues and a market capitalization of $170 billion when I retired. You can't change those statistics. I'm not bragging - I'm proud of my record."

Mr. Greenberg paused to pick at his grilled chicken salad.

"But I'm not looking back - I'm looking forward," he said. "What always drives me is building. I can play only so much tennis, or read only so many books. If I'm not building something, then I get bored."

Mr. Greenberg is unlikely to get bored any time soon. There's a book to be written. There's more insurance business to be done in Asia, a region where Mr. Greenberg made breakthrough contacts decades before anyone else.

There's especially China, where Mr. Greenberg is a venerated figure, ever since he long ago befriended the young mayor of Shanghai, Zu Rongji, who went on to become prime minister.

In addition to Asia, Mr. Greenberg is expanding C. V. Starr, the company founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt Starr, the great entrepreneur who mentored Mr. Greenberg. And he's putting together private equity investments.

"There's also Russia - I first went there during the height of the cold war. There's the Middle East. There's insurance. There's banking, investment banking, the environment, health care, pensions, consumer finance - there are plenty of opportunities, especially if you've built strong relationships," Mr. Greenberg said.

"I'm focusing on private companies," he said. "Running private companies in today's environment is a lot more satisfying - private is beautiful." The last phrase seemed a modified allusion to economist E. F. Schumacher's celebrated book, "Small is Beautiful."

As he spoke, a parade of prominent people passed by the table. The former chairman of Citigroup, Sanford Weill, gave Mr. Greenberg a warm hug, and they exchanged family news. The civil rights leader, Vernon Jordan, boomed out a greeting and a huge wave. The public relations maven, Gershon Kekst, also stopped by. Mr. Greenberg was clearly touched by the respect - and indeed deference - that fellow diners offered him.

As the conversation progressed, he talked about his peeves.

"I've always said that every country must have good regulations in place - regulations, not strangulation, and certainly not retroactive regulation," Mr. Greenberg said, alluding this time to legislations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that require tight monitoring of accounting practices and corporate governance at public companies.

Protectionism is another concern for Mr. Greenberg.

"We want our companies to have access to other countries and American companies to invest throughout the world. As a nation, that is what we have sought to do - open markets," he said. "Protectionism would be devastating for the world economy if nations began to put up barriers to foreign investment, and other nations retaliate by increasing tariffs on goods and services from countries that seek to protect their own markets for one reason or another.

"Look at what happened when the Chinese Oil Company, CNOOC, tried to buy Unocal last year for $18 billion. Did it propose a security threat to America? Not really. The same thing when Dubai wanted to buy port facilities in New York - and this was viewed as a security risk even though the Coast Guard is responsible for security, and not the port owners.

"The threat to increase tariffs on Chinese goods entering the U.S. by 27.5% if China failed to revalue its currency makes it difficult for American companies to continue to operate successfully abroad. Trade and investment are not one-way streets. How we treat others is the way we must expect them to treat U.S. companies," Mr. Greenberg said.

He paused. A soft expression washed across his face. Then Mr. Greenberg said:

"Despite many of these issues, there's no country like the U.S. I've always been mindful of the American experience during my long career. For example, my great grandmother Ida Abramowitz came here from Russia in her 80s. She went back to Russia in her 90s to bring her entire family to America through her earnings.

"She worked with a pushcart. She worked until she was 108 years old - and she stopped working only because she died in an accident. And here I am a couple of generations later. That, to me, is what America is all about," Mr. Greenberg said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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