Profile: Tidjane Thiam, newly appointed CEO of Credit Suisse

Tidjane Thiam, CEO of Britain’s biggest insurer Prudential, has been announced as the new CEO of Credit Suisse

Credit Suisse appoints Tidjane Thiam as CEO

Credit Suisse’s veteran chief executive Brady Dougan is to be replaced by Tidjane Thiam in an abrupt leadership change at Switzerland’s second biggest bank. Set to take over in June, Thiam has been poached from the UK’s 11th largest public company, insurer Prudential, where he has been very successful since his appointment in 2009.

The news was greeted with cheer from the wider financial world: Credit Suisse stock rose almost 8%. But Prudential shares fell 3%, and, combined, they put a £3.4 billion price on his head.

Building Britain’s most successful insurance company, Prudential

A switch of this kind, from insurance to banking, is rare; almost as rare as the move from running a British company to a Swiss one. But the French Ivorian businessman and former politician is also a rarity – and not only because his appointment to Prudential made him the first (and still only) black leader of a FTSE 100 company.

Under Thiam – who was first appointed CFO in 2008 before promotion to the top job – Prudential’s share price has tripled, turning the company into Britain’s most successful insurer. Thiam strategy has been a focus on financial discipline, and rapid growth across Asian and US markets. To illustrate this success, in 2014 Prudential’s operating profit in Asia increased 16% to hit £1.05 billion, and profit at Prudential’s Jackson National subsidiary in the US jumped 21% to £1.4 billion.

Prudential chairman Paul Manduca described Thiam as “one of the most exceptional leaders in Prudential’s long and illustrious history”.

An African heritage and a French education

With an eclectic make-up of African heritage and French education, Thiam was born in the Ivory Coast to an aristocratic mother (the niece of the first President of the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who led the country to independence in 1960 and ruled until 1993) and a political father who served more than 10 years in the Ivorian cabinet after independence. His uncle was also Prime Minister of Senegal for more than 10 years.

Thiam then moved to France and gained engineering degrees from the École Polytechnique, achieving the accolade of the first Ivorian to pass the entrance exams, and Ecole Nationale Superieure de Mines de Paris, where he graduated top of his class. He also received an MBA from the French business school INSEAD.

Three high-flying decades to his name

The now 52-year-old Thiam is also not just a successful insurer: he is a leader with three high-flying decades to his name. He has worked for management consultancy firm McKinsey twice (1986-1994 and 2000-2002) in both New York and Paris. He was a senior executive at British multinational insurance company Aviva (2002-2008). And from 1994 until the coup of 1999 he was the chief executive and then chairman of the National Bureau for Technical Studies and Development in the Ivory Coast, reporting directly to the Prime Minister and President. He also served in the cabinet as Minister of Planning and Development, where handled key negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and promoted private sector involvement in infrastructure development.

In honour of his achievements, in 2011 he was awarded the rank of Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur by the French government; in 2012 he turned down an offer to become head of the World Bank’s private investment arm, despite a personal request from US President Barack Obama’s then-chief of staff, Jacob Lew; and in January 2014 he was appointed as a British Business Ambassador by invitation of the Prime Minister.

He also counts former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof, with whom he has worked on African development, as friends.

Reshaping Credit Suisse

At Credit Suisse, Thiam faces the challenge of turning around a bank that has failed to innovate in a post-financial crisis world. It is grappling with declining profitability, weakened capital, and investor demands for bigger steps to reshape the business. The bank’s share price has fallen 18% in the past year.

Thiam’s predecessor Dougan is one of the only banking CEOs to have survived the financial crisis, a period through which he stably guided Credit Suisse. But he was also slow to overhaul the investment bank, and Thiam will be expected to make decisions specifically regarding this. He will also face a $10 billion lawsuit over the sale of mortgage-backed securities dating to before the financial crisis.

But a man who has risen from the Ivory Coast (albeit from a privileged position) to the UK’s 11th largest company and then Switzerland’s second biggest bank, is most likely up to the job. He has managed an $800 billion balance sheet at Prudential, consulted with investment banks at McKinsey, worked with the IMF and World Bank in Africa, and been responsible for the planning and development of the Ivory Coast: he is little short of exceptional. And once he has a bank under his belt, there will be little stopping him from taking the next step to a globally prestigious position at a body such as the IMF.


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