Interviews

Tidjane Thiam, highest paid and most influential african Executive in THE UK

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He is the first black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company – though he hates people dwelling on that. He is only 47, but has already been a government minister in Ivory Coast as well as a top businessman.

He has had an extraordinarily dramatic life, and he could not be more different. As he puts it himself, he is “black African, francophone and six foot four”.

Mr Thiam was born the youngest of seven children in Ivory Coast. His mother was the niece of a former president but never went to school, and taught herself to read as an adult.
His father was a journalist, then a diplomat. Depending on who was in power, he was either a minister or a political prisoner.

Mr Thiam loved getting A grades – he was very competitive and always wanted to do better than his older brothers.

Back to Ivory Coast
Mr Thiam joined the management consultancy McKinsey in 1986, working in Paris and then London.

But in 1994 the then Ivorian President, Henri Konan Bedie, asked him to run the agency in charge of all Ivory Coast’s infrastructure projects.

At the time, Mr Thiam also had an offer to join Goldman Sachs, but turned it down to return to his home country. He arrived in the middle of an economic crisis that triggered a 50% devaluation of the currency. As a result, he was not paid for six months, nor were his 4,000 staff. It taught him a lot, he has said, about leadership and people.

What made him spurn a highly lucrative job for penury in the Ivory Coast?
His old friend and colleague, Dr Aka Manouan thinks it was “because he loved his country – Ivory Coast first of all, but also Africa more generally”.

“He really wanted to offer all that he had learnt overseas to his country. As he liked to say, “the development of Africa will be done by Africans themselves; international donors can help, but it’s us who will develop the country.”

To the Pru
Mr Thiam’s wife, Annette, is African-American. Also extremely bright, she is a lawyer who used to work for Joe Biden before he became Obama’s vice-president. They have two teenage sons who, like their father, are ardent Arsenal fans.

Mr Thiam moved to Prudential as finance director in 2008 and made a splash when he was named as the first black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company just a year later.

Old hands have worried about the number of people he has brought in from McKinsey.
But he is a popular boss, admired for his intellect, straight-talking, approachability and strategic vision.

Stephen Whitehead of Prudential thinks Mr Thiam’s experience of being a politician has helped him in the business world.

“He is very good at building consensus and at persuasion,” said Mr Whitehead. He recognises that you have to carry people with you, and he is very good at that.”

 

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