AIG headquarters in Cuba

When launching businesses in areas of the world where insurance is not a well-known product, the accommodations aren’t always in state-of-the-art facilities. Instead, AIG adapts to what is available, proving its flexibility and ingenuity, even if sometimes the initial office isn’t much bigger than a small closet.

This level of resourcefulness can be tracked back to founder Cornelius Vander Starr, who launched what would become AIG in Shanghai, China, in 1919. He had come to Shanghai after a short stint in Tokyo and launched his business with two small, rented offices and a pair of hired clerks.

From that meager beginning, AIG expanded into a global powerhouse, opening offices across Asia, the United States and other parts of the world. One of the most important offices AIG had during World War II was its Latin American headquarters in Cuba, launched in 1937. From this location, AIG expanded into parts of Central and South America. Yet the accommodations at the first office in Cuba, which sat in the back of the Bacardi Building in Havana, didn’t provide much more than a desk and a phone. Within four short years, however, the Cuba office relocated to a local mansion, which provided much more space to host clients.

As Europe and Japan rebuilt after World War II, AIG provided policies and assistance to protect the revitalization efforts. AIG was given the go-ahead in 1946 to enter Japan, providing insurance to the U.S. military from two small rooms in the Bank of Chosen Building in Tokyo. In the same year, AIG entered Germany and set itself up in a former beauty parlor a few miles outside of Frankfurt. In addition, AIG had a mobile unit that visited U.S. military outposts—serving as a traveling office with a desk, typewriters and stools—to sell auto insurance policies. Several years later, AIG opened an office in London that was a converted piano showroom. While accommodations were more than adequate, the original coffee lounge in the basement of the former showroom consisted of a bamboo table held together by shoelaces.

Creature comforts weren’t always a top priority for AIG when launching in new regions. And, yet, since the beginning, the company has thrived due to the skill and creativity of its agents—demonstrating that it doesn’t need plush surroundings to win customers’ loyalty.