The man from the Pru: Brilliant or just lucky?

Tidjane Thiam was 'a dead man walking' after his $36bn bid for AIA foundered. But now he's the toast of the City

Tidjane Thiam wasn't always flavour of the month in the City of London. Three years ago it seemed his glittering career was about to end in tatters after Prudential, the insurance company he had run since 2009, pulled the plug on a $35.5bn (£23.8bn) deal for rival AIA, leaving investors nursing £377m in fees.

At the time, fund managers across the Square Mile called for his head, claiming in particular that his decision to pursue a non-executive directorship at Société Générale at the climax of the process was an example of why he should not be in charge of a FTSE 100 company.

Fast forward to March 2013 and the picture could not be any different. Prudential saw pre-tax profits rise 54 per cent to £2.8bn in 2012 on the back of impressive growth from its Asian business. After raising the company's full-year dividend by 16 per cent to 29.19p, Mr Thiam is now the toast of analysts and investors alike.

Such a dramatic turnaround raises the age-old question: is he brilliant or just plain old lucky?

He first came to the attention of the City in 2002 when he joined rival insurer Aviva from the management consultancy McKinsey. At the time, the Ivorian realised he was something out of the ordinary, with his domestic political career in Africa having been ended in a military coup. Reflecting on his appointment some years later, he said: "I was tired of the usual answer, which is 'we like you, you are a great guy, but this is a division with 10,000 employees, and we just don't think they would understand having someone like you at the helm.' I was told that a number of times and I was getting a bit tired."

"I said, 'Frankly, you need to tell them that you found someone who is black, African, Francophone and 6ft 4in."

His Aviva appointment did not go unnoticed and he was tipped for great things, having a rare mix of intelligence, wit and humour. He was swiftly promoted within Aviva, and even played a key role in the company's ill-fated acquisition of the US insurer AmerUs, which ironically led to Aviva posting a £3.3bn loss last week.

It wasn't long before Prudential came sniffing. Just months after joining Aviva he was appointed by Prudential as its finance director, in prime position to replace chief executive Mark Tucker.

The timing of Mr Thiam's arrival was a key moment. Not only did he join Prudential – a company that had built up a foothold in Asia under Mr Tucker – but he left behind Aviva, which would go on to flounder. Brilliant or lucky?

By 2009, Mr Thiam had succeeded Mr Tucker as boss of Britain's largest insurance company. Prudential was in much finer shape than its peers, and it became almost inevitable that it would make another move for Asia-focused rival AIA.

In March 2010 that $35.5bn deal was announced. It was the first real test of relations between a UK company, its advisers and shareholders since the onset of the financial crisis and, mindful of RBS's disastrous deal for ABN Amro, investors made it clear they would be no pushover.

Within months it was all off – ruined by executive mis-management and disagreements over price. Mr Thiam's SocGen debacle was a particular sticking point, with one investor at the time describing him as a "dead man walking". But he survived.

Yesterday's news showed just how far he has come over the last few months. A week after Aviva revealed a £3.3bn loss and deep cuts to its dividend, Prudential's share price now sits at more than £11, while Aviva's languishes at 324p.

Brilliant or lucky? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, according to experts.

"Tidjane inherited a business dominated by Asia put together by Mark Tucker, so in that respect he was lucky," one City expert said. "The Asian markets have also fared considerably better than in Europe. However, he's a hard worker and has taken the company to new levels. As well as being charming and personable on the outside, he is an internal taskmaster – the perfect mix. There's no doubt he has great talent."

Another source added: "I'd say he was certainly lucky to escape the vicious coup in the Ivory Coast.And he was unlucky not to get AIA. He's got clear ideas and a terrific grasp of numbers. The brilliance outweighs the luck, but both work hand in hand."

The next few months are likely to determine whether he can ultimately outdo his predecessor by delivering a lucrative break-up of the insurance group, widely expected once it meets the challenging Asian profit targets it set itself in late 2010.

Whether this happens or not, Mr Thiam's time as the Man from the Pru will be remembered for many years. Brilliant? Yes, but also pretty lucky.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

PMO Analyst - London - Banking - £350 - £400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: PMO Analyst - Banking - London - £350 -£400 per d...

Cost Reporting-MI Packs-Edinburgh-Bank-£350/day

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Cost Reporting Manager - MI Packs -...

Insight Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k – North London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum plus 23 days holiday and pension scheme: Clearwater ...

Test Lead - London - Investment Banking

£475 - £525 per day: Orgtel: Test Lead, London, Investment Banking, Technical ...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game