A Desire to Leave the World Better Than He Found It: Acts of Generosity from AIG’s Founder C.V. Starr

By | December 17, 2018

Cornelius Vander Starr had many identities, including American entrepreneur, successful businessman, salesman, fearless world traveler and business pioneer. As the founder of what is now American International Group, he also was a firm believer in corporate social responsibility long before CSR was a buzzword.

C.V. Starr believed in giving back personally and corporately — and here’s a bit of his story for Insurance Journal’s charity issue.

After selling a small insurance agency in San Francisco, Starr decided to seek his fortune in Asia. When he was just 27 years old in 1919, he stepped off a steam ship in Shanghai and quickly identified a gap in the insurance market.

Western insurers were almost entirely overlooking the local Chinese population for insurance sales, which Starr saw as a massive opportunity, said Bill Coffin, director and senior editor for AIG.

Although China had been through some pretty turbulent times, Starr saw that life expectancy was rising and thought, “These people need life insurance, and I’m going to sell it to them.”

That’s how Starr started American Asiatic Underwriters, which ultimately would become a global insurance empire.

Coffin said that Starr was a natural salesman who would chat with everyone. “He would go out and beat the bricks and sell people insurance.”

It obviously worked, because by 1939 — when his operation relocated its headquarters from China to New York because of World War II — Starr had built a successful business with offices throughout Southeast Asia. He had a branch in Cuba and had already launched American International Underwriters (AIU) in the United States. After World War II, AIU entered Japan and Germany, initially selling insurance to the American military. The company became known as AIG in 1967.

Starr was always on the move, always traveling.

“When he saw an opportunity to introduce himself, he always took it,” Coffin said.

It was one such encounter in 1951 that changed a Japanese man’s life, and Starr’s as well. Starr was now a wealthy man and, by all accounts, a generous man. Some of his friends described him as “generous to a fault.”

Coffin said he was simply keen to give back — and did in a massive way for Chiharu “Chick” Igaya, whom he met on a skiing trip in Japan.

An avid skier, Starr had been chatting with the owner of a Japanese ski shop when Igaya walked into the store. Starr discovered that Igaya was a competitive skier who was heading to the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, but he couldn’t afford to stay in Olso to train ahead of the competition.

On the spot, Starr offered to pay for Igaya and his teammates’ travel and training expenses.

“Even though Igaya didn’t win a medal in that Olympics, that didn’t stop their relationship,” Coffin said. “He ended up competing in several more Olympics … He actually won a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics and became quite a well-known skier.”

Starr continued to support Igaya after the Olympics and paid for his tuition to attend Dartmouth College.

Determined to show his gratitude, Igaya joined AIG in Japan and stayed with the company for 49 years, rising to honorary chairman of his division before retiring in 2008.

“The generosity that Starr showed him blossomed into a wonderful friendship, and a professional relationship as well,” Coffin said. “Igaya had this immense respect for Starr and worked for him for close to half a century. He never forgot that act of generosity that Starr showed him.”

Coffin said that such generosity was very common for Starr. “If he saw that a person had a real desire to reach far and to work hard, but something was blocking their way, he would swoop in and say, ‘What can I do to help?'”

Starr also liked to gather people around him who held similar values. “He wanted to see the same values in the lieutenants he gathered to run his organization, so that spirit of generosity was really not confined just to Starr,” Coffin said.

As Starr’s business prospered, he wanted to spread that tradition beyond his own personal giving to make sure his organization also exhibited a similar degree of generosity, which is now called “corporate citizenship,” Coffin said.

In 1953, Starr led an industry effort to provide disaster relief donations for Holland after a historic flood inundated the country and caused massive damage. He not only persuaded the U.S. insurance industry to donate money for the recovery efforts, but Starr, through his company, donated $10,000, which is nearly $100,000 in current dollars.

“It was one of the largest cash donations made by an American business firm in that relief effort,” Coffin said, noting that these are just two of the many examples of Starr’s corporate citizenship.

“Even though these two acts of generosity are fairly different in size, scope and direction, they both come from the same place,” Coffin said. “It’s a desire to leave the world better than you found it, and to recognize that wherever you do business, you’re also a member of that community, and you have an obligation to help it whenever you can.”

Coffin and his team are gathering these stories of AIG’s corporate citizenship to get ready to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary next year — 100 years after C.V. Starr stepped off a steam ship in Shanghai and began sowing the seeds to create a global company. And 50 years after his death in 1968, Starr’s legacy continues.

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