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This summer upstart ACE engineered one of the largest insurance takeovers in history, agreeing to acquire venerable Chubb Corp. for more than $28 billion. A few weeks after the deal was announced, ACE chairman and CEO Evan Greenberg was in Warren, New Jersey, standing in the four-story atrium lobby at Chubb’s headquarters, looking up at unsmiling employees who leaned over the railings to hear from their new boss.

“This is like giving a speech in the Roman Colosseum,” the sinewy, shaven-skulled, 60-year-old executive told his audience. “I hope there’s no lions and that you don’t choose to throw anything at me.” Nervous giggles cascaded down. Greenberg then enumerated the many synergies and lucrative future he foresaw for the merged company, which he pointed out would be named Chubb, not ACE. “I don’t know any other way to show respect to somebody to begin with than to say we’re going to take your name,” said the insurance industry’s reigning superstar.

Months later, back at his midtown Manhattan headquarters, 45 stories above the theater district, Greenberg sounds less self-effacing. “We’re still ACE,” he tells Institutional Investor in a two-hour interview that displays his passion, brashness and edgy humor. “We will be ACE in Chubb clothing,” he quips.

It has been an extraordinary journey for the son of fabled insurance giant Maurice (Hank) Greenberg. For a quarter century Evan worked for his father at American International Group, expecting to take over what was then the planet’s leading insurer. When that didn’t happen, he quit AIG in 2000 and sulked for more than a year.

He plunged back into the industry after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, joining ACE, a midsize, Bermuda-based reinsurer. Over the next 14 years, he led ACE into 16 acquisitions, culminating with the Chubb deal, which will create the sixth-largest U.S. property/ casualty insurer by premiums. That would place the new entity behind State Farm Insurance, Liberty Mutual Group, Allstate Corp., Berkshire Hathaway and Travelers Cos.

Even more remarkable, this buying spree has taken place in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, when most insurers have been more intent on returning capital to shareholders than spending it on acquisitions. “You’re never going to shrink your way to greatness,” Greenberg says of his firm’s more cautious rivals.

The Chubb deal may, in fact, accelerate consolidation. Over the past year or so, there has been a spike in mergers, especially in reinsurance, though nothing on the scale of the Chubb acquisition. Some of ACE’s rivals have stumbled. Zurich Insurance Group failed in its takeover bid for the U.K.’s RSA Insurance Group. Meanwhile, AIG is facing a shareholder revolt, led by activist investor Carl Icahn, demanding that the firm sharply reduce its size and costs.

Because of Greenberg’s success at simultaneously bulking up ACE and delivering eye-catching profits, investors give him more leeway than almost any other insurance chief. “Evan obviously has deep roots in the insurance industry, but he’s been able to apply that knowledge and experience in uncommon ways,” says Laurence Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, one of ACE’s biggest shareholders. “He’s also been smart about the risks ACE is willing to underwrite and the company’s strategic direction.”

For all the attention focused on ACE’s pre-Chubb buying splurge, Greenberg points out that two thirds of his company’s growth has been organic, with acquisitions made to complement existing businesses. That meant buying a Mexican insurer to accelerate the growth of ACE’s own commercial p/c and accident and health (A&H) businesses south of the border and building up ACE’s U.S. agricultural clientele by purchasing a multiperil crop insurer.

Throughout this breakneck expansion ACE has demonstrated an obsession with underwriting. Over the past dozen years, the firm’s combined ratio, which measures costs and claims as a proportion of premiums in the p/c business, has averaged 7 percentage points lower than that of any major insurer in the world.

“We are underwriters first of all,” says Greenberg. That has certainly helped ACE’s bottom line in this prolonged era of low interest rates and paltry returns from insurance investment portfolios. In the first nine months of 2015, ACE’s $1.5 billion in underwriting income almost equaled its $1.7 billion in net investment earnings. Overall, net income for the period was $2.15 billion, down 6.5 percent from $2.3 billion for the first three quarters of 2014. In the five years from 2010 through 2014, ACE delivered a 124 percent total return to shareholders, compared with 113 percent for Chubb and 123 percent for Travelers.

A key strategy behind acquisitions has been ACE’s resolve to expand into emerging markets, where younger, upwardly mobile societies offer higher profits than the mature, lower-margin markets of the developed world. “Evan recognized the importance of the rise in the middle class in emerging markets like Thailand, Mexico and Brazil as a driver of growth,” Fink says.

But all these previous acquisitions amount to only a fraction of the Chubb deal, announced on July 1. In one fell swoop, ACE raised its gross premiums written from $23.4 billion to $37 billion. The merged companies are complementary in many of their business lines. ACE has a much larger footprint abroad; in the U.S. the firm is more focused on large corporate accounts and high-net-worth individuals. Chubb also is known for catering to affluent clients but is stronger than ACE in the middle-market companies and personal lines businesses. Both insurers are known for their conservative investment portfolios. Their combined ratios — 87.2 percent for ACE and 87.5 percent for Chubb for the first three quarters of 2015 — place them among the industry leaders. “We both put underwriting on a pedestal,” Greenberg says. By contrast, AIG’s combined ratio for the first nine months of 2015 was 99.6.

But for a merger this large, execution risks are high. “It’s going to be intense, with a lot of heavy lifting,” says Joshua Stirling, a New York–based insurance analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “This is a merger of two big companies that will have to work through their differences in culture, systems, duplicative operations and staff.”

In the months following the announcement of the deal, there’s already been at least one high-profile case of a senior Chubb executive jumping ship rather than accepting a different position in the merged entity. Still on the minds of many analysts is the $70 billion 1998 merger of Citicorp and Travelers, which broke apart four years later.

Greenberg readily acknowledges the risks. “It’s one thing to buy Chubb; it’s another thing to integrate them well,” he says. “One of the real questions for me was, Is my company ready for this, and can we as a management team handle this? And I feel very confident we can.”

Evan Greenberg was born confident. With his father, Hank, perhaps the most iconic figure in the insurance world and his older brother, Jeffrey, in the business as well, Evan’s destiny was set. He did have youthful detours: After finishing high school at 17, he traveled around the U.S. for three years doing odd jobs, the longest as a cook in a Colorado nursing home. He never received a post–high school degree, though he briefly attended New York University and the College of Insurance.

In 1975, Greenberg, then only 20, accepted a $7,800 annual salary to rate automobile policies for New Hampshire Insurance Co. (later acquired by AIG). A few months later he joined AIG as an underwriter in its A&H business; he spent the next 25 years there, working his way up to president and chief operating officer, and heir apparent to his father.

“I’m a product of that upbringing at AIG,” Greenberg says. “Underwriting was everything. There was never a greater insurance company.”

Former colleagues remember him as driven. “If you don’t like high-performance, high-expectation, relentless pursuit, then you probably wouldn’t want to work for Evan,” says Daniel Glaser, CEO of Marsh & McLennan Cos. and an AIG executive during Greenberg’s last year at the firm. “You cannot outwork him.”

But when it became clear that Hank Greenberg had no intention of retiring any time soon, Evan stunned the insurance world by abruptly resigning from AIG. For 15 months he moped. Other insurers hesitated to contact him, fearing they could not offer him anything comparable to the lofty post he had vacated. The exception was ACE, whose chief executive at the time, Brian Duperreault, was another AIG alumnus; he pursued Greenberg relentlessly for more than a year.

The September 11, 2001, attacks persuaded Greenberg to finally accept Duperreault’s invitation to join ACE as vice chairman. The terrorist assault led to a huge withdrawal of global insurance capacity. But ACE, incorporated in the Cayman Islands with headquarters in Bermuda, had just raised more than $1 billion to deploy. “So when 9/11 happened, I called Evan again and said, ‘We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’d hate to have you miss it,’” recalls Duperreault, now CEO of Bermuda-based Hamilton Insurance Group.

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