While global conflicts can upend industries, destroy businesses, and reshape economies, World War II proved to be a turning point for AIG, whose commitment to employees helped it thrive once the conflict ended.
Many able-bodied men volunteered for service during World War II, but AIG founder Cornelius Vander Starr made it known that those who weren't fighting could still support the war effort by ensuring the growth of the firm. “Think of our responsibility,” Starr said, “that you can help me carry to all the families and people around the world…to insure that we can have a company for them to come back to when this is all over.”
Even as Starr kept the company running during the war, he also sponsored war bond drives and urged donations to the National War Fund, which paid for USO tours and provided aid for POWs. The company’s New York offices assisted clients in areas where the Axis powers had cut off traditional communications. Meanwhile, the Latin America headquarters in Cuba helped the company gain a foothold in South America and other parts of the world, providing much-needed revenue to offset the markets it lost in Asia when the war broke out.
The human toll of World War II was immense, and AIG was not immune to it. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japan invaded the Philippines. Americans, British, Dutch and other Allied citizens caught in the Philippines at the time were sent to internment camps, including AIG employees Leonard Collier and Bill Burrell, who worked in Manila when hostilities began. During their three-year internment, Starr provided financial support for Burrell’s wife and kept her informed of any updates that he heard. Burrell did not survive the ordeal, but Collier did. He learned after the war that while his mother never received the letters he sent her, Starr had successfully provided her with regular updates.
When the war ended, soldiers and POWs who had worked for AIG before the war found they still had jobs. Collier returned to the United States in 1945, and he went on to work for the company for many years afterward.
The strengthening of the firm in Latin America gave AIG the resources to expand into Europe and Japan after the war as it insured reconstruction efforts. More importantly, the care that AIG showed its people during the war set the tone for the next generation of employees to serve selflessly and dedicate themselves to clients’ well-being, wherever AIG’s service was needed.