Blunt bailout talk? AIG CEO's true passion is wine

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:17pm EDT
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By Adam Tanner

VIGANJ, Croatia (Reuters) - AIG's new CEO, Robert Benmosche, has sparked just about as many headlines as one executive can in the past few weeks -- and all while on holiday at his villa in Croatia looking over the Adriatic.

He has been unusually outspoken for the head of a major New York-based corporation that has been bailed out by the U.S. government.

He recently made waves by saying that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo had acted like a "criminal" and also ignored concerns about corporate excess by showing a Reuters reporter around his 12-bathroom villa in Dubrovnik. And his very presence here has upset some -- as he came to Croatia on holiday only days after taking the helm at AIG on August 10.

But perhaps the context for some of this can be found in the passion the 65-year-old American has for his avocation as a vintner. When he was CEO of the largest U.S. life insurer MetLife Inc, Benmosche dreamed of retiring here and producing wine from the nation's vineyards.

Benmosche, who first visited Dubrovnik on a corporate retreat in the 1980s and was charmed by the city and scenery, spent millions to make that dream come true. He bought and renovated a massive villa, acquiring vineyards and then after a year of seeking approvals from U.S. and Croatian authorities importing 1,500 vines from California to produce the popular American Zinfandel type of wine. Coming out of retirement to one of the toughest jobs in corporate America had not been part of the original plan.

This summer was the first harvest from these vines -- now multiplied to 6,000 plants -- a harvest Benmosche had no intention of missing.

"My hope is that the vineyard becomes a source of true, high-quality wine for this region," Benmosche said last week during an interview at his Dubrovnik villa.

"Because they are really not there yet. They are just struggling coming back from the war, they are still struggling with this whole idea of capitalism. If they become part of the European Union, their wine making is not going to compete unless they make a better class of wine. I want to show them."   Continued...

<p>The new CEO of American International Group Inc Robert Benmosche speaks during an interview with Reuters in the garden of his Adriatic seafront villa in Dubrovnik, Croatia, August 26, 2009. REUTERS/Nikola Solic</p>