Tidjane Thiam quits Prudential for Credit Suisse: The exit of a chief exec who defied the odds

 
Tim Wallace
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“Tidjane cared about wider society issues as well as shareholder issues. He’s a good person”
Back in 2010, you would never have expected Tidjane Thiam to receive this reaction on his departure from Prudential.

An ill-fated acquisition bid left shareholders fuming – the attempt to buy AIA for £21bn saw the insurer lose £373m and Thiam took the blame. On top of that, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) censured him, fining the firm £30m three years later for not disclosing the bid.

Yet yesterday analysts and industry practitioners were full of praise for the chief executive, as he announced his departure to go and head investment bank Credit Suisse.

He had previously said that a chief executive should stay in the role for five years or so, meaning he has come to the end of his time in the role on his own measure. And the Credit Suisse task certainly represents a very different type of challenge as the bank undertakes major reforms to return to sustainable profitability.

“It’s a sad loss for the UK insurance and fund management industry and for British business,” Legal and General’s boss Nigel Wilson told City A.M. “Tidjane cared about wider society issues as well as shareholder issues. He’s a good person.”

Those views were echoed by Aberdeen Asset Management’s Jeremy Whitley: “Tidjane is an impressive leader and has done a great job at Prudential. Credit Suisse has got a good man and we’ll await with interest who will replace him and build on the strong foundations he’s laid at the Pru.”

And the market’s verdict was unequivocal – Prudential’s shares fell 3.1 per cent while Credit Suisse’s soared by 7.76 per cent.

This mighty turnaround in Thiam’s reputation is far from the only impressive feat in his professional career.

Born to a well-connected family in the Ivory Coast, the very international executive had to survive the enormous ups and downs which came with his and his family’s jobs.

His mother was related to the president, and his father rose from life in a tiny village to a cabinet position.

But his father lost that job when he was arrested after being accused of plotting a coup against the president – a plot Thiam says was cooked up by a rival who, in fact was plotting.

After leaving Ivory Coast to work at McKinsey and then the World Bank, Thiam returned to take up a ministerial post under a new president.

He too lost out to a coup, in 1999. Though he was in France and planning to head to the US, Thiam returned to Ivory Coast.

He was later offered the position of Prime Minister.

“I turned it down – I don’t believe in violence in politics, and the whole political scene there is led by people who believe the end justifies the means,” he told Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. “For me, life is sacred. Absolutely sacred.” Instead, a glittering private sector career beckoned in the UK, and now Europe.

Despite those early wobbles in his time at Prudential, Thiam presided over a tripling of the share price.

But despite all of that history and that success, Thiam has not forgotten the embarrassment of that FSA punishment. He maintains he did not tell the authorities for fear of the deal negotiations leaking out – perhaps well justified, given the shambles affecting the industry last year when the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) botched an insurance industry announcement.

And sources close to Thiam say he is furious that the FCA’s boss Martin Wheatley did not face the same degree of censure that he received.

Dealing with regulators since then has also needled him. From the annuities changes last year to the long-running row over the details of Solvency II, Thiam is understood to be regularly frustrated by the attitude of regulators.

That may have helped propel him to look around for a new job, as would have the fact that he has kids at university in the US. He will be missed.

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