How do you grow a global company that has origins in a number of different countries around the world? You trust those who understand local customs and needs.
Ever since Cornelius Vander Starr began offering insurance out of his first office in China, in the earliest days of the company to which AIG traces its origins, there has been a focus on results. This gave local insurance agents opportunities to rise within the ranks and allowed Starr to rapidly extend the reach of his early ventures.
When Koong-Kai “KK” Tse joined Starr in 1927 at the age of 20, the accounting books were months behind. Starr asked the accounting team if they could bring the books up to date before a planned office move five months later. When Tse and the team succeeded, it was a triumphant moment. He went on to play an important role saving company records when Japan took control of Shanghai during World War II, and when the Shanghai office had to relocate to Hong Kong a few years later.
“I think [Starr] was the first and only person, to my knowledge, to delegate real authority to local people,” Tse said.
A number of similar examples appear throughout the history of AIG and its predecessor companies. Myriam Niemtzoff, who became an early employee in Argentina, started out as a secretary but moved into an underwriting role. Dr. Odilon de Beaucloir, who served as general manager of the largest insurance company in Brazil in 1950, was recruited as Brazil’s president and general manager. And Gary McMillan, a native of Ontario, became AIG’s general manager in Canada in 1979 and retired as CEO of the region in 2012.
These hires helped shape some of the largest businesses in the company’s portfolio. When an AIG predecessor moved into Japan in 1946, one of the first hires was Kozo Yamaguchi, an industry veteran of more than 40 years.
Hiring Yamaguchi was so important to J.V. Rough, who started the Japan operation, that he showed up to Yamaguchi’s house, unannounced, to persuade him to join. Yamaguchi answered the door ready for bed and not expecting an interview. The men met again the next day, and Yamaguchi agreed to join Rough’s team. As the company grew, Yamaguchi transitioned to manage the fire insurance business before launching his own insurance agency and becoming an agent for AIU.
Then and now, hiring and nurturing talent in its regions around the world is the type of employee growth that strengthens AIG.