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Hank Greenberg on China, Iran and Soviet 'Minders'

Thursday, 9 May 2013 | 9:00 AM ET
Hank Greenberg's Secret to Success
Wednesday, 8 May 2013 | 12:00 PM ET
CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera talks to former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, who tells her the secret to success is to "get there first."

Hank Greenberg, the former head of insurance giant AIG, is both a controversial and monumental figure in the business world. Understandably, most media coverage of his new book "The AIG Story" focuses on the second half of his personal chronicle—his unceremonious ousting from the company by an overzealous New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and the subsequent downfall of AIG during the financial crisis.

Everybody knows that part of the story, however.

As chief international correspondent for CNBC, I was struck far more by the first half of his book, which focuses on the building of AIG—from a small domestic insurance company into the mammoth global player it would become—driven by Greenberg's relentless push into overseas markets. He did it all against tough odds in places no one believed were worth the trouble at the time. I sat down to speak with him about his overseas push, at the offices of his new insurance venture CV Starr.

His greatest overseas achievement? In my opinion, it's by far his entry into China, where to this day he is treated like a rock star. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made their groundbreaking trip to China in 1972. Hank Greenberg was right behind them, in 1975. All of this was before China's "paramount leader," Deng Xiaoping, announced plans for major reforms that would lead China to eventually embrace a market economy.

The country was deeply impoverished at the time, but Greenberg wasn't fazed by that. "I didn't believe from the very first day that you can keep a billion odd people out of the world trading system," he said, "and the fact that they had been isolated for years did not mean they were always going to be."

"I thought getting our nose under the tent in the beginning would be a good idea," he said. That's just what he did.

In our interview, Greenberg defended his decision to continue construction of AIG's new China headquarters in Shanghai, even in the wake of the deadly crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"When Tiananmen Square erupted, everyone left China," he said. "We stayed, believing that this was a horrible incident that would soon be over. People were not going to abandon looking at China as a growth opportunity. I made friends with the then mayor (of Shanghai) who became premier, and our relationship was just terrific."

(Read More: AIG Earnings Top Expectations, but Revenue Misses)

After the US government imposed sanctions to punish the Chinese government, Greenberg stayed. He defends the decision in moral terms, not just business terms. "You don't bring about change by isolating a country," he said. "You gotta be there. If there was wrongdoing, you don't get it right by staying away."

From Iran to the Soviet Union

Hank Greenberg
Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Hank Greenberg

Being at the geographic forefront often means facing geopolitical trouble. Perhaps the worst crisis for Greenberg came during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The man who ran his Iranian subsidiary, KC Shabani, was kidnapped at the same time that Americans were taken hostage by students who had taken over the US embassy in Tehran. (That situation was recently dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie "Argo.")

Shabani's driver was the man who turned on him and put him in prison. The ordeal was horrific, said Greenberg, "They took him out every night, put him against a wall. There was a firing squad that shot blanks at him. His hair, which was jet black, turned totally white."

Greenberg's security team arranged a rescue without the help of the US government. "The US had no assets in the country, none, because the embassy was taken and all the employees held hostage," he said. "We were not going to bribe anybody because we wouldn't know who to bribe anyway. We worked our own mission out. It took less than three months. We got him out."

How?

"I'm not gonna tell you how, because it might endanger some families and lives," he said. "You know never know, we might have to use it again." (Even at the age of 85, Greenberg is still working to build CV Starr into a massive insurance company.)

(Read More: AIG Repays All of Government Bailout)

The Iranian revolutionaries accused Greenberg of being the head of the CIA in the Middle East. It wouldn't be the only time foreign governments thought he was a spy. He faced the same questions in Russia—while it was still the Soviet Union—when he first traveled there in 1964. Greenberg recounted the following conversation:

"We drove by KGB headquarters and the minder in the front seat next to the driver turns around and says 'You know what that building is?' I said, "No. What is it?"

The KGB minder replied, "They must have shown you pictures in the training program."

"I said, 'Gee. it looks different,' as a joke. He didn't take it as a joke. They were very serious," Greenberg said.

Greenberg says every time they left their rooms in the government run hotel, their belongings were searched. "I knew that. But we built a relationship."

As a result of that relationship, Greenberg's AIG was set to insure the Moscow Olympics of 1980—that is, until President Jimmy Carter ordered an American boycott of the games in retaliation for Russia's invasion of Afghanistan.

Whenever constructing a new building in a country, Greenberg made sure it was big, beautiful, and strong-looking. "It's a symbol. When you are opening insurance in Third World countries, you want to show a sign of permanence. When buying insurance, you want to know the insurance company is going to be around. You're selling an intangible product. It's not an automobile and it's not things that you can see and touch. And so, I always wanted a building that showed permanence."

This may explain why he is still suing the US government for what it did to AIG during the financial crisis. He still wants AIG to be a permanent fixture in vast parts of the world.

In "The AIG Story," there's no doubt Greenberg is portrayed in the most favorable light possible. That's not surprising, considering the book was commissioned and partially written by him. So don't expect the book to expose any of his warts. In terms of its accuracy, the sharpest criticism I've heard from numerous people who know the story of AIG well is that Greenberg's sins are in the book's omission. Specifically, he leaves people out, with no mention of certain executives who were important at specific times. Obviously, a company like AIG can't be built alone.

At the same time, they all acknowledge, there are few people in the world who have the brains, and more importantly, the brawn to achieve what Greenberg achieved. That drive and brawn is on full display.

—By CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Follow her on Twitter: @MCaruso_Cabrera

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