After a century, looking at a Starr in the making

( Updated: 2018-11-28

CEO built on founder's early success in Shanghai to grow a global insurance and investment company

After a century, looking at a Starr in the making

Maurice Greenberg with disabled athletes after donating $2 million for the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai in 2007. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

World War I had just ended, and like most people, Cornelius Vander Starr had little money. Yet he used what he had to travel to China and start a small insurance company.

Over time, C.V. Starr & Co - now part of Starr Companies - has grown into a global insurance and investment services company, and next year will mark its 100th anniversary.

In the 1990s, under the leadership of Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, who became chairman and CEO upon Starr's death in 1968, the company became the first foreign business to receive a life insurance license in China. Since then, it has launched a broad spectrum of products and services.

Greenberg said the custom in China is to celebrate a major anniversary a year early, so Starr Companies began its centenary celebrations with an event in New York in June, with more to follow in its birthplace, Shanghai, next year.

"That's an important occasion. There's no American insurance company (in China) before we started. So we are very proud of that," he said in an interview in his Manhattan office.

Starr grew up in California and studied law before joining the United States Army. After leaving the service, in late 1919, he went to Shanghai and set up an insurance agency with help from Chinese bankers. It was the first American-owned company in China.

At the time, British and French insurance firms would only work with companies from their own country. They refused to insure Chinese companies, Greenberg said.

Starr did the exact opposite, he said. He insured Chinese companies and hired local employees. The agency grew and became a success, expanding to other parts of Asia.

The company moved its headquarters from Shanghai to New York in the 1930s after the Japanese invasion of China. When the war was over, Starr returned and the Shanghai office was re-established. However, the US businessman left again in 1949 and never returned.

After a century, looking at a Starr in the making

Greenberg signs a painting by athletes who at the time were preparing to take part in the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games.GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

Taking the reins

Greenberg, a legendary figure in the global insurance world, joined Starr Companies in 1960. Fifteen years later, he became the first executive at the company to visit China since the founding of the People's Republic.

That visit led to a partnership between Starr Companies and People's Insurance Co of China, which Greenberg said was a "tiny" company at the time with only a couple of hundred employees in Beijing. Both agreed to reinsure each other, and Starr Companies helped PICC train its workers.

"We put them on our sales contracts, so they got some affluent businesses," Greenberg said. As that relationship grew, he began returning to China at least once a year and positioned Starr operations throughout Asia.

Greenburg said his vision was simple: "China has one of the largest populations in the world. As China develops, they would have insurance - people buy homes, build homes, have ships; they want to insure these properties. Obviously the potential is very great."

He said he believed China would develop and was "prepared for the amount of time it would take" for Starr Companies to re-establish its business in the country. So he visited China every time he was in Asia.

In the late 1980s, he met Shanghai's mayor, Zhu Rongji, who later became premier. Greenberg worked with Zhu in leading efforts to establish the International Business Leaders Advisory Council, with the aim to attract foreign companies to invest in the city. It was a success, and the council is now one of the most prestigious organizations of its kind in the world. This year was its 30th anniversary.

Dual goals

In 1992, Starr Companies received a wholly owned life insurance license in China, which helped further opening up of China's financial services industry to US businesses. The company introduced the insurance agency system to the country, and helped people learn about sales and performance-based commissions.

"Even before we got the license, we helped PICC and other Chinese insurance companies learn more about life insurance," Greenberg said. "We take them (their people) outside of China to train them and show them how to work in another country. They benefited from that, obviously.

"On the more complex parts of insurance business is nonlife insurance. Construction risks, marine risks, aviation risks are much more complex. They are learning, but it takes more time, and we are helping them."

Greenberg said it was "with difficulty" that Starr Companies has achieved its dual goals of ensuring rapid development and helping Chinese companies grow in the past 40 years.

"We have strong people all through Asia. We bring them to China to help train Chinese people. We bring Chinese people and train them here. We do it all ways."

After joining C.V. Starr & Co, Greenberg helped consolidate a number of insurers and insurance agencies that Starr owned with others that he had appointments and/or joint ventures into American International Group, or AIG, in 1967. He was named president and CEO of AIG the same year.

He took AIG public in 1969, and its market value increased from about $300 million that year to more than $180 billion in 2004, when it was the largest consolidated insurance and financial services holding company in the history of the world.

When he retired from AIG in 2005, Greenberg focused on his role as chairman and CEO of Starr Companies, which includes C.V. Starr & Co and Starr International Co. At the time, it was the largest shareholder of AIG.

Starting with only a handful of employees, over the next 13 years, Greenberg expanded Starr Companies' global operations to nearly 4,000 workers at offices in 20 countries.

"It took a lot of courage for an American with little money to go to China and start an insurance business," he said, referring to Starr, in an interview with Leaders magazine. "And we're carrying on that tradition.

"We're proud that we're celebrating 100 years of being in business under the name Starr. I'm proud to have known Mr Starr, and proud of what he accomplished."

Speaking to China Daily, the chairman and CEO said Chinese companies have improved a lot, but "they have to learn how to do business outside of China, which is very difficult."

"As the country develops more, they have to keep pace with the country. So you have to train more people. It takes experience. They are learning it all the time. ... We are helping them as much as we can," he said.

It takes patience to become competitive, he added. "There's no shortcut. You have to learn. We bring them to the country, we have our own operation. We teach them how. But it takes time. You can't do that in one week."

He said he sees Chinese companies as more than just competitors. In large risks, no single company takes on the entire risk. "We share risks. We teach them how to do it. We get them some business. So it's paid for that way," he said.

China became the world's second-largest life insurance market last year and is expected to become the world's largest by 2028, Xinhua News Agency reported, citing an April statement by Allianz, a leading insurer in Europe.

The US, with more than 30 percent of global premium income, at $1.33 trillion, is the world's largest insurance market, but Allianz said in a report it will lose the No 1 spot to China in the next decade.

Giving back

Since 1975, Greenberg has visited many parts of China and tries to go to a different city on every trip. He has been awarded honorary citizenship in five cities - Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Wuhan.

He has become a strong advocate for closer US-China relations, noting in an earlier interview that "it is in the national interest of both countries to continue building trust and growing mutual understanding."

Since the charitable Starr Foundation was established in 1955, it has made grants to various nonprofit causes worldwide, including several hundred million dollars to causes in China.

Greenberg, the foundation's chairman, said he believes in what it has done to help bridge the differences between the two cultures. "We've done a lot for children's needs, for medical research," he said. "We have built hospitals for children. We are proud of that. In some areas, we are helping feed children in schools."

In 1993, the foundation aided the recovery of missing Chinese relics - bronze window and door panels from a pavilion in the Summer Palace.

During the Boxer Rebellion, around 1900, half of the 20 original bronze window and door panels at the Baoyun Pavilion were removed. The stolen panels ended up at an auction house in Shanghai in 1910 and were purchased by a French bank executive.

Greenberg learned in 1992 that an antique dealer in Paris had the panels. "I called the Chinese embassy first to get in touch with the Chinese museum in Beijing to make sure they are authentic. They did," he said.

Experts authenticated the panels by comparing them with the other 10 panels at Beijing's Palace Museum.

To return them to their rightful place, Greenberg agreed to buy the panels, and paid for their shipment to China's State Bureau of Cultural Relics in July 1993. At a ceremony in December 1993 to celebrate the return of the bronze window and door panels, Zhang Deqin, then-director of the bureau, said sending them back "has opened a new window to link peoples' feelings together".

"We can see through this window a brandnew field of friendly cooperation among people of different races, in different countries and under different social systems," Zhang said.

Greenberg was one of the first people to go into the pavilion when it first opened. He recalled the ceremony was "very emotional".

"The Chinese are very grateful," he said. "It's the first time that somebody gave something back to the Chinese that was taken away. So I'm proud to do that."


On his first trip to China more than four decades ago, Greenberg and his wife, Corinne, along with two colleagues, visited the Great Wall, the old city of Beijing, and Shanghai. They saw many bicycles and Chinese people who were curious about people from the US.

Comparing his first impression of the country with his current one, he said: "It's like night and day. Like a country I never visited before, looks totally different. Take Shanghai as an example, compared to New York, Shanghai is much more advanced in many ways."

Recognizing the important role China's reform and opening-up policy has played in the country's 40 years of development, Greenberg said President Xi Jinping meant it when he promised at the Boao Forum in April that China would further open up.

"China's opening-up policy would benefit everybody. China and the rest of the world," Greenberg said.

Regarding whether China is moving fast enough to open its market to other countries, he said: "There will always be some problems like that. We have to deal with problems. They (China) have to deal with the problems.

"My belief is China benefits from companies introducing new products in China. I'm confident that over time we can work out all these issues. It benefits both countries."

He said he believes the China-US relationship is the most important in the world.

"It's a much safer world with US and China as allies, friends and trading partners than with anybody else," he said.

He suggested China should have a more evenhanded approach to foreign companies, especially US businesses in China. "It's not a complaint from me. I'm more concerned with the relationship," he said.

Greenberg added that he hopes US President Donald Trump and Xi will meet and personally resolve issues. "I believe it's in their hands to do it, and I think they can do that," he said. "I'll do my part as much as I can to help in that regard. I believe it's important to both countries, for the future of the world."