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Nicholas Kourides – American International Group Inc.
Founded in 1919, American International Group Inc. (AIG) is one of the largest names in the international insurance market. With more than 90 million customers across 100 countries, AIG offers a full range of insurance services including casualty insurance, life insurance, retirement products and mortgage insurance. As one of the country’s top commercial and industrial insurance underwriters, AIG serves 99 percent of all Fortune 500 companies and 40 percent of Forbes 400 Richest Americans and has a market capitalization of over $60 billion.
With over 30 years of diversified financial industry experience, Nicholas Kourides oversees an extensive legal team at AIG in his role as senior vice president and deputy general counsel. Kourides serves as head of AIG’s global regulatory and Federal Reserve supervision and also as head of the legal team for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) at the global insurance giant.
After a wide-ranging career that has seen him spend time specializing in three pillars of financial services — securities, banking, consumer finance — Kourides rounded out his qualifications in 2007 when he joined AIG, adding insurance expertise to his skill set. “Insurance is different from banking or securities or consumer finance, but it’s still a financial service,” he says. “There is a lot of learning, but once you have the tools, it’s a process of learning, not completely reinventing yourself.”
The son of a lawyer who practiced law until he was 93 years old, Kourides was exposed to the profession at a young age. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University, Kourides spent a year in Beirut, Lebanon as part of a teaching fellowship program in the late ‘60s. While he taught European history and English literature to high school students, it was as much of a learning experience for Kourides as it was for his students.
“It was the most transformational experience of my life,” he says. “I was living on a bridge between the Eastern and Western world in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and to be exposed to cultures that I knew so little about was fantastic. On one street were the most sophisticated French stores and on another street was the Arab souk.”
Kourides also credits his time in the Middle East with helping to develop his worldview in a way that still benefits and excites him to this day. “It created a whole international and global interest that I’ve pursued since then; it was unbelievably broadening,” he says.
After returning to the U.S. and graduating from Columbia Law School, Kourides spent a year clerking for a U.S. District Court judge in New York for a year before joining the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, where he would spend the next decade.
While Kourides gained knowledge, experience and professionalism from his time at the firm, he ultimately found being part of an actual business more engaging. “Looking back, I think not being fully involved from start to finish on a deal or project left me not really part of the strategic decision-making,” he explains. “I have always had the view that every 10 -15 years you need to look at yourself, repackage and move on, so rather than stay at a law firm for the rest of my career, I went internal, which I found extremely satisfying.”
In 1983 Kourides left the firm and joined The Chase Manhattan Bank as vice president, senior associate counsel and ultimately became co-head of the company’s global corporate finance legal group. After 14 years, he left for American Express where he served as general counsel of their bank, managing director for international, and a member of the Global Management Team.
In 2007, after exactly 10 years, he joined AIG as general counsel for the insurance company’s life and retirement services division. This lasted only for a year when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Because of his experience in M&A and because a majority of the operations initially targeted for sale were the international life insurance portfolio, he was asked to take over the M&A legal team.
As part of the financial crisis, AIG received a $182 billion bailout from the federal government. Over the next three years, Kourides oversaw AIG’s M&A team as it worked to sell off billions in assets as a means of paying the government back $205 billion — the original $182 billion plus another $23 billion of profits for the U.S. Government. “We had to sell a lot,” he says. “We completed over 70 deals worth over $100 billion in the course of four years in order to pay back the government.”
The sell-off was a massive undertaking, even for a company as large as AIG, but Kourides credits his team’s superior experience and commitment for helping to see the company through one of the darkest periods in its nearly 100-year history. “We did more M&A deals than most lawyers do in a lifetime,” he says. “We had a phenomenally competent, coordinated group that really energized each other by doing a first-rate job for an extensive period of time. You never really know if you’re prepared for something like this.” Two members of his team landed positions as general counsel at other large companies thanks in part to their experience at AIG.
“The corporate survival of AIG is probably one of the greatest events in the history of the corporate world,” says Kourides. “We were on the verge of the financial system collapsing, but we were able to survive and pay back the government with a substantial profit. AIG was not a company known for working together. However, when it came to survival you saw very talented people come together, defy the skeptics and recover from a near death experience. The relationships and bonding exist to this day and one has to feel immense pride walking through the door at AIG every day.”
Shining in the darkest days
Aside from giving him a chance to utilize his considerable M&A experience, Kourides’ role with AIG has allowed him to further develop his experience working in the global market. “AIG has a big global presence and I’ve always done a lot of international work,” he says. “Every day presents completely new challenges and opportunities. You literally never know what to expect when you wake up in the morning.” Shortly after AIG repaid the government, he was asked also to lead the global regulatory function and be responsible for dealing with regulators in 90 countries and the Federal Reserve supervisory team. That required building a team of seasoned professionals who are able to gain the respect, trust and confidence of the regulators both internationally and domestically.
In connection with his duties, Kourides like others at AIG addressed the negative public perception that the insurance company garnered during the financial crisis. “We were a company that was known in the media as the poster child for the financial crisis,” he says. “Clearly there were parts of the company that took large risks, but in another sense we were also a victim and that’s why we’ve been so successful in lawsuits and judgments since the crisis.”
While Kourides has been very busy during his time at AIG, he’s never been bored with the job. “The number of talented people and the number of seasoned and experienced members of senior management makes this job so varied. Because AIG is large and global, nothing is ever quite the same in terms of the cutting-edge types of deals, so we’re really at the forefront of issues in the global economy,” he says. “Moreover, insurance is essential to the entire community. For example, assume what would happen if, for one day, no insurance policies were effective. The world might actually stop functioning — no planes would fly, no cars would be driven, no trains would run, etc.”
In a bid to stay ahead of the insurance industry as a whole, through the vision, creativity, thoughtfulness and dynamic leadership of its CEO, Peter Hancock, AIG has recently begun to look at developing artificial intelligence and scientific models. Mr. Hancock built a department of about 125 members to develop technology that will, for example, help the company predict outcomes and better anticipate insurance claims based on certain factors. “Rather than doing things on the back of an envelope, we’ve become more analytical and have started looking at statistics and performance to predict issues going forward. We pay over $100 million a day in claims, and if we can get just a little better at that, we have the potential to save a huge amount of money,” says Kourides.
“We’re constantly looking at developing technologies whether that means partnering with universities such as Johns Hopkins to figure out how to deal with certain medical issues or trying to predict how employees get injured to reduce workers’ compensation claims. We insure almost anything from cows in India to massive development products,” he says.
One of the most important changes after the financial crisis was creating a sense of stability and renewed purpose in the legal department. Tom Russo, former general counsel at Lehman Brothers, joined AIG in early 2010, after having had extensive experience dealing with the impact of the financial crisis. He was able to restore structure and revitalize the department’s credibility to such an extent that since 2014 it has received numerous awards as the best legal department from The New York Law Journal, Corporate Counsel Magazine and many other prestigious publications and institutions. In addition, in an attempt to bring a sense of normalcy back to the department, Mr. Russo established a highly regarded pro bono program which permitted the lawyers to devote their skills also to helping community programs.
Utilizing his interest in Middle Eastern matters, Kourides approached the Urban Justice Center to offer assistance to a newly formed program called the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) which focuses on resettling refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. IRAP was founded by an energetic and dynamic young Yale law school graduate and seeks to help obtain special visas and resettlement in the U.S. for Afghani translators and other support personnel, who assisted the U.S. military and who face threats of violence and death in their home country.
The AIG Legal Department was one of the first corporate contributors to this program and has more than 45 lawyers from across AIG participating in this pro bono effort. “It’s an inspiring and wonderful program to which we have now contributed for four years and we’ve been instrumental in helping families resettle in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s emotional and moving when these families arrive in the U.S. We feel we are helping to save lives and doing our part to assist these people who risked their lives for the U.S.”
The deputy general counsel has also relished the chance to pass on his own experience to the next generation of lawyers and business professionals as they work to keep AIG successful well into the future. “I have found over the years that I very much enjoy mentoring, developing character in people and helping them to move on and be successful. I think that’s a very rewarding and important part of how you can utilize your experience and expertise to help others,” says Kourides.
This commitment is quite evident from his experience co-teaching a seminar at Columbia Law School on International Banking and Financial law for the past 23 years. Rekindling his interest in teaching decades earlier in Lebanon, he has hardly missed a class, even during the financial crises. The seminar involves many masters of law candidates and he has almost 600 alumni from his seminar all over the world. Kourides says that it is extremely gratifying meeting former students in regulatory agencies and financial services practice and hearing how much they appreciated the seminar experience.
When asked about the challenging period of time currently for AIG as it retools and reinvents itself, he says, “The company saw what it could do in the financial crisis when it was at a precipice. The current economic environment will be difficult but is only a bump in the road compared to 2008-2009. This time we know what we have to do and it is a matter of execution. We have superb leadership, the strategy, the tools and the commitment. I feel lucky to be part of this effort.”
Having weathered one of the most difficult periods in the company history and acquiring a wealth of experience across many sectors of the financial services industry, deputy general counsel and senior vice president Nicholas Kourides looks forward to providing legal advice at AIG in a dramatically changing industry.