American International Group, Incorporated (AIG) is in the process of declaring itself to be 100 years old, even though its founder, Hank Greenberg, is only 93 years old and founded the company in 1967.
Apparently, all a company has to do to declare itself in its centennial year is to find a convoluted way to designate a founding history that dates back to Shanghai in 1919. This must be the original meaning of “shanghaied.” The current AIG company says that its history dates back to when Cornelius Vander Starr, a Californian, stepped off a steamship in Shanghai in 1919 and started an insurance business in the city. Needless to say, there is some controversy about the AIG claim of its history and “ownership” of the lineage – otherwise, there wouldn’t be a story. Hank Greenberg founded AIG by pulling together some of the operations that had grown from the original Shanghai company for which he had acquired access. He took the company that he called American International Group, Incorporated public and then worked for that company for 40 years, until he was forced out as CEO in 2005. In the intervening years since his exit from AIG, Greenberg has been continuing in the management of Starr Companies, the original company named for Cornelius Starr, the owner and manager of the company for whom he worked during its early days and who he then succeeded in the company after Starr’s death in 1968. The Starr Cos. is the one that Greenberg claims is the actual holder of the lineage connection back to the original Shanghai company, having a straight line of innovation and strategic actions from that time. After Greenberg left AIG in 2005, he concentrated on building up parts of Starr that hadn’t been incorporated into AIG. Greenberg says, “We’re competitors now and key parts of the history don’t get to stay with AIG.” In today’s competitive environment, most companies have their lawyers keep strict track of any use of their name or of their history. This is how the confrontation began – Starr’s attorneys notified Greenberg that AIG had launched an AIG 100 website, thereby claiming ownership of the legacy of Starr, and of its centennial status, of course. As well as charging that AIG is claiming, incorrectly, that it owns the Starr history, the lawyers have also pinpointed numerous errors on the website such as the claim that “AIG had to leave China twice – once during WWII and once following the Communist Revolution.” The Starr lawyers correctly point out that the Communist Revolution ended in 1949, and that AIG would not exist for another 18 years. These are the politics of competition in the modern marketplace – Greenberg’s Starr Cos. has held two centennial receptions of its own, thus far. It’s doubtful that any resolution will be reached on the matter. AIG says that it doesn’t plan to make any changes to its “centennial” website; Greenberg counters that, “We’ll do whatever we have to do to correct the misinformation.” Greenberg is a fighter, with a long history of both military and professional confrontations – so the story might not end there. But, if I were guessing, I’d say that both sides will decide to let things rest. This snippet of controversy, however, does provide an interesting glimpse into the regular interactions and machinations within the corporate world.