"I am passionate about insurance." Tidjane Thiam is an unusual man, even in his own industry. Few insurers would admit to such a fervent interest in their subject and fewer still could happily contemplate, as he did last week, "making an emotional speech about insurance".
Mr Thiam is one of the few finance directors not to have an accountancy qualification, and the only top-flight insurance executive who has served as a minister in an African government – and been unseated by a coup. Last week, he underlined his status as a unique individual amid the stuffed suits of the City when he was unveiled as the first black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company.
It was a remarkable achievement in one of the most conservative business sectors, but there was a sense of inevitability about Mr Thiam's rise to become head of Prudential. In a City career spanning 15 years – broken by his six-year stint as Finance Minister of the Ivory Coast – Mr Thiam, 46, has consistently commanded attention within the business world and beyond.
He is a striking figure, who describes himself as "black, African, francophone and 6ft 4ins". His background – for a City leader, at least – is equally extraordinary. He was born in the Ivory Coast but fled to France with his family when he was four. After schooling in Paris, he joined the consultants McKinsey aged 24.
His meteoric business career was interrupted in 1993, when the then Ivorian President, Henri Konan Bédié, asked him to join his government to help tackle its latest economic crisis. His political career was abruptly curtailed by a coup in 1999, while he was in France.
Mr Thiam had little experience of insurance when he was headhunted to join Aviva as group strategy director in 2002, but he rose to the post of chief executive for Aviva Europe. He was poached by the Pru last year.
At a briefing with the outgoing Pru chief executive, Mark Tucker, last week, Mr Thiam told analysts that it had been "suggested... that we provide you with a simultaneous translation in English, but you will have to put up with my accent". He takes over in October, and you can be sure that we will be hearing much more from Tidjane Thiam and that accent.Reuse content