Joe Cummings illustration: Tidjane Thiam
© Joe Cummings

When Tidjane Thiam, the outgoing boss of British insurer Prudential, appeared at a press conference in Zurich this week he spoke at length in fluent German before switching to French, then English. Onlookers were impressed.

Mr Thiam, who is 52, was in Zurich to announce his appointment as the new chief executive of Switzerland’s second-biggest bank, Credit Suisse. The news was greeted with pleasure in the wider financial world; Credit Suisse stock rose almost 8 per cent.

Mr Thiam has already proved himself an adaptable man of many careers. But this switch — from insurance to banking — is as rare as the move from running a British blue-chip to heading a Swiss one. Mr Thiam, a francophone west African, and the first (and so far only) black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, seems unfazed. Manny Roman, who heads the Man Group hedge fund and is one of Mr Thiam’s closest friends, says simply: “He’s an exceptional person. Credit Suisse is very lucky to have him.”

Investors seem to agree. The jump in the bank’s stock when he was unveiled as the replacement for Credit Suisse veteran Brady Dougan, combined with the fall in the Pru’s share price, put a £3.4bn price on his head. How much Mr Thiam will actually be paid when he takes over in June has yet to be disclosed but it is expected to be more than £10m a year.

Mr Thiam was born in the Ivory Coast to an aristocratic mother and a father who became a government minister. He grew up mainly in Morocco as the youngest of seven children, which spurred him to be highly competitive. Mr Thiam senior was once told by a Paris taxi driver that the Ecole Polytechnique was France’s finest university, and he set his heart on one of his children attending. His youngest was the last hope, or “l’ultime espoir” as he came to be nicknamed. He duly passed the necessary exams, the first Ivorian to do so, and he excelled.

Jean-Pierre Mustier, an old friend and until recently head of UniCredit’s investment bank, remembers him well from those days as an elite student of maths and physics. “He is a very rare brain. He was always very studious,” says Mr Mustier. “But occasionally we’d take time off and go to the Luxembourg gardens for a game of pétanque.”

That fun-loving nature is evident to anyone who has seen Mr Thiam cheering on Arsenal football club. “He has the passionate exuberance of an African,” says another friend, “mixed with that French-trained Cartesian mind.”

It is an eclectic make-up that has underpinned a three-decade patchwork of high-flying jobs. He has been a government minister in his home country; a World Bank executive in the US; a McKinsey consultant in Paris; and latterly in London an insurance man — first at Aviva then the Pru.

Mr Thiam is at home on the Davos circuit, debating macroeconomic and geopolitical challenges. He counts among his friends former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof, with whom he has worked on African development.

But he has business nous, too, and an easy way with people. Among senior managers on the ninth floor of the Pru’s City of London headquarters, doors are open and “we’re always in and out of each other’s offices”, says one.

Mr Thiam lives quietly in Belgravia, a discreet corner of inner London favoured by the international elite. His understated tastes apparently run to nothing more extravagant than a cigar and a glass of white burgundy. He and his African-American wife, Annette, have two sons, one at university in the US, the other about to leave school. The family tends to holiday at a second home in Florida.

Mr Thiam is routinely polite, witty and — despite his trenchant intellect — self-deprecating. But he is thin-skinned on a few topics. Ask him about his inexperience in banking and he shoots back a withering riposte about derivatives pricing merely being a diluted version of the nuclear physics he once studied.

He discusses the everyday racism he has encountered in his career in a “white man’s world”: being refused entry to a hotel in London’s West End, or being seated near the toilets in an empty restaurant. Mr Roman remembers standing on a New York street corner with his friend years ago, trying and failing to hail a cab, and being told by Mr Thiam: “Now you know what it feels like to be a black man.”

Some even see racism in the way Mr Thiam was treated over the Pru’s 2010 plan to pay £23bn for Asian rival AIA. He was personally rebuked by regulators in 2013 over his failure to alert them about the abortive bid, the first such censure handed down to a FTSE 100 boss. Critics say he behaved arrogantly in that instance. Today even those involved in the affair are more sanguine. “I think it was inexperience, not wilful arrogance,” says one former policy maker. “He was sufficiently self-reflective afterwards to work hard to repair relations with the regulator.”

Nonetheless, those who know Mr Thiam are convinced that the regulator’s tough treatment, and tense investor relations over the deal, soured his genuine affection for the UK. The move to Zurich may have added an appealing dimension to the Credit Suisse offer: a new challenge in a new country for this most international and adaptable of business leaders.

And, unlike Mr Dougan, who never mastered German, the new chief executive can already speak the language of Credit Suisse.

The writer is the FT’s financial editor

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