Robert Benmosche AIG
Robert Benmosche

Robert Benmosche, who is stepping down this weekend after five years as American International Group Inc.’s chief executive officer, said he learned in May that he had nine months to a year to live.

Benmosche, 70, said in an interview that he moved up his exit, which had been slated for early 2015, as his health deteriorated. The CEO, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, said he wants to enjoy the time he has left after outliving earlier prognoses and repaying the insurer’s $182.3 billion U.S. bailout.

“I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to play the odds,'” Benmosche said in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Television’s Betty Liu at his villa in Croatia. “So let’s accelerate my retirement. And the board was happy to do that.”

Benmosche is turning over the CEO post to Peter Hancock, who leads the property-casualty unit and previously spent two decades at J.P. Morgan & Co. before the bank merged with Chase Manhattan Corp. AIG announced in June that Hancock would become CEO on Sept. 1.

Benmosche has undergone aggressive and experimental treatments since 2010, when he was first told that he had no more than a year to live, he said in the interview. One pill that was supposed to help fight the disease for a single year proved effective for three before it stopped working, forcing another shift in his treatment, Benmosche said.

“They say I’m stable, which is a big word, because it wasn’t stable for the last six months, and I went through a massive study on a new technology for about three to four months that did zero,”Benmosche said. “I’ll know in another month or two whether we’re making good progress.”

‘Terrible Diagnosis’

Benmosche told staff in 2010 that he had been planning even before the diagnosis to step down in 2012. He later extended that timeline, and the company said in its annual report filed with regulators in February that he intended to remain CEO until the first quarter of next year.

The CEO said he had to remain focused at the time of his diagnosis on the divestiture of Hong Kong-based life insurer AIA Group Ltd. AIG exited the business through four public offerings that raised about $35 billion.

“Some people say you fall apart when they tell you you’re going to die,” Benmosche said. “It’s a terrible diagnosis, but one thing I’ve learned in this business is that everybody dies.”

Benmosche took over at AIG less than a year after the company’s bailout. The insurer’s fifth CEO since 2005, he sold assets and cut jobs as he narrowed the company’s focus to global property-casualty coverage and U.S. life insurance and retirement products. The stock closed yesterday at $56.16, compared with $11.39 when his hiring was announced.

Mother’s Advice

Benmosche said that he felt like he’d completed his goals for the insurer by the time the transition had been announced. A month earlier, AIG sold its plane-leasing unit for $7.6 billion in what the insurers called its last major divestiture. Benmosche said the timing was also driven by advice from his late mother.

“My mother told me, ‘Don’t wait too long,’ and I’m glad I didn’t wait too long,” Benmosche told Liu. “She said, ‘Live your life when you’re healthy enough to live it.'”