The message from Xi Jinping reached the Plaza Hotel via a senior Chinese diplomat.
Beijing sends its regards to its friends in New York who are working towards improving US-China relations, the emissary told revelers in the Grand Ballroom — in particular, to Evan Greenberg, the night’s honoree and chief executive officer of Chubb Ltd.
That China’s most powerful leader since Mao would single out the Greenberg name is less surprising than it might sound.
Evan and his older brother Jeffrey are scions of the AIG insurance fortune: Their father, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, built American International Group into a global colossus.
That, of course, was before — before Hank Greenberg was forced to resign and AIG got bailed out and before the decade of finger-pointing that followed (he reached a settlement to pay $9 million after a 12-year New York fraud court battle).
Today the Greenbergs are busily building their post-AIG empires, with the family worth an estimated $6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
And, as Xi’s message suggests, China is front and center.
The family has interests in businesses with history in China that date back more than a century, to before the founding of the People’s Republic. But these days, the Greenbergs are looking to capitalize on the huge Chinese market in ways AIG never did, all the while trying to balance their own private ambitions with American interests.
The Greenbergs declined to comment for this story.
A Chubb spokesperson emphasized that Hank and Evan operate their companies and finances separately. The spokesperson said there is no “common Greenberg entity engaged in China business,” nor is there a “commonly-owned Greenberg family fortune,” and any routine business dealings within the insurance sector between the separate companies of the three Greenbergs are conducted at arm’s length.
Among the hundreds of dignitaries who attended that gala at the Plaza — a black-tie celebration to foster Sino-US ties — Evan Greenberg is a figure China watchers are watching. With Washington and Beijing at odds over trade, Taiwan, technology and more, the 67-year-old has emerged as an executive-diplomat of sorts.
He and his father have advocated for mending US-China ties to government officials, business leaders and national security experts. In November, Hank Greenberg led a group of executives meeting with Chinese officials ahead of Xi’s summit with President Joe Biden in Bali. A think tank affiliated with the country’s foreign ministry organized the Chinese team, which included a former ambassador to Washington, an ex-commerce minister and Ning Jizhe, a former vice minister at the economic planning agency.
Those negotiations were held on Park Avenue at the headquarters of C.V. Starr & Co., the family’s flagship group and former parent of AIG. The discussions covered concerns over the possibility of a Taiwan conflict while also emphasizing areas of possible cooperation, such as how to clear the way for new business in China.
Apparently, their efforts are paying off. Only weeks after Xi’s message arrived at the Plaza, official Beijing greenlighted the newest Greenberg venture in China.
Chubb, headed by Evan Greenberg, was allowed to acquire a majority stake of a Chinese insurer, Huatai Insurance Group. C.V. Starr already owns a big stake in another Chinese insurer, Dazhong Insurance Co.
“In the long term, a really big company like Chubb needs really big markets,” Paul Newsome, managing director of Piper Sandler Cos., said of the Huatai deal. Chubb has a market capitalization in excess of $91 billion after gaining almost 14% this year.
At his keynote speech at the Plaza, Evan Greenberg urged Americans to embrace engagement with China in fields that aren’t sensitive to national security.
“Broad notions of decoupling and self-sufficiency are unrealistic,” he said. “I have a great appreciation for the Chinese culture and Chinese people. I am American, my loyalty is to my country. I believe American interests are served by a stable US-China relationship.”
While Evan Greenberg and his children have Chubb shares worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the core of the family’s fortune is derived from its interest in C.V. Starr, an insurance group with $30 billion in assets. Hank Greenberg is CEO and chairman.
Jeffrey Greenberg, meantime, chairs Aqualine Capital Partners, an investment firm with $9 billion in assets.
After years of lockdowns and lost business opportunities, Evan Greenberg is betting China is ready for a reopening, which represents a different set of conditions compared with when his father became a pioneer in China’s period of opening up economically, said Meyer Shields, managing director of Keefe Bruyette & Woods.
He “recognizes the tremendous opportunities for Chubb and also, frankly, for the Chinese citizenry to have access” to insurance, Shields said.
Doug Barry, vice president of the US-China Business Council, said relations between Washington and Beijing appear to be improving. The meeting in Bali and China’s move to loosen its stringent Covid restrictions point to an opening, but business executives have been slow to respond, he said.
“The Greenbergs — father and son — are exceptions,” Barry said.
Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, participated in talks between several former US and Chinese officials, as well as several business executives, organized by Hank Greenberg at C.V. Starr’s Park Avenue headquarters in November.
The retired admiral expressed growing concerns over the possibility of conflict as bilateral relations reached a low point when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August.
“There are a lot of things that can be addressed where there’s common ground,” Mullen said. “The Taiwan issue is so central now that we have to work these things simultaneously.”
Having business leaders at the negotiating table is valuable even if it mixes national and private interests, he said, adding that the fix for the “most important bilateral relationship of the century” will likely be economic in nature.
Xi himself approved the meeting and the White House was looped in. The US side included Paul Fribourg, CEO of agribusiness ContiGroup Cos., former Senator Joe Lieberman and two ex-ambassadors to China.
The meeting — which came as a Republican victory in the House ensures a hard line on China with the possible creation of a special committee — was the first such gathering since before the pandemic struck.
Greenberg “orchestrated the whole thing,” Mullen said.
(Updates with Chubb shares in 16th paragraph. An earlier version corrected with Chubb comment to show the business is distinct from CV Starr.)
To contact the author of this story:
Blake Schmidt in New York at email@example.com