A coup for the man who fled war to become the first black FTSE boss

Tidjane Thiam's appointment as the new head of Prudential caps a remarkable personal journey. Andy McSmith reports

Friday 20 March 2009 01:00 GMT

Tidjane Thiam surely has the most interesting biography of anyone who has headed up the Prudential Insurance Company. Just one of the many interesting facts about him is that he is the first black chief executive of any of the top 100 British companies.

He must also be the only director of any major company in this country whose previous career, as a politician, came to a sudden end when the army seized power in a small state in west Africa.

The Prudential – the boringly reliable old Pru – might seem like completely the wrong berth for a man with a hint of a Frederick Forsyth novel in his back story, but the markets do not think so. Yesterday's news that Mr Thiam had taken over as Prudential's chief executive from Mark Tucker, who stepped down after five years, sent the share values soaring. They were up 28 per cent at one point in the day.

Obviously, Mr Thiam's professionalism is more highly valued by City brokers than it was by the high command of the army of the Ivory Coast 10 years ago. In December 1999, Mr Thiam was on the way to becoming one of Africa's leading world statesmen. His homeland, a former French colony wedged between Ghana and Liberia, had been a beacon of stability for decades, despite the religious divide between a predominantly Muslim north and Christian south.

It was held together for 33 years under the firm rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny. When he died in December 1993 he was the world's third longest surviving leader, after Fidel Castro and North Korea's Kim-il Sung. He left behind some sumptuous displays of wealth, notably the largest church in the world, the so-called "basilica in the bush" in his home town, where 7,000 people assembled for his funeral.

But a country that had prospered through most of his rule had run into economic troubles due to a fall in the price of coffee and cocoa, and because evidence of corruption was turning away foreign aid. The new president, Henri Konan Bedie, needed someone highly qualified to speed up the country's development, so he sent for Mr Thiam.

Born in the Ivory Coast in 1962, Mr Thiam left home for Paris when he was young to study engineering first at the Ecole Polytechnique, then at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines, where he came top of his class. In 1986 he joined the consultancy McKinsey & Co and worked for them up to his return to the Ivory Coast, apart from a year's sabbatical with the World Bank in Washington.

Having been coaxed back to his homeland, he became the first native Ivorian to head the National Bureau for Technical Studies and Development, a position which allowed him to bypass ministers and other officials to deal directly with the president and the prime minister. In August 1998, he was appointed minister of planning and development and was in charge of the co-ordination of public investment in infrastructure and alleviating poverty.

As a young government minister, he drew rave notices internationally. In 1998, the annual World Economic Forum in Davos selected him as one of its 100 "global leaders for tomorrow". The following year's Davos summit named him a member of its "dream cabinet". The World Bank, in Washington, appointed him to its 20-strong External Advisory Council.

But at home, the government was losing its grip. President Bedie had called an election in 1995 but put so many restrictions on opposition parties that they boycotted the poll. As the country geared up for the 2000 election, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim who had served as prime minister under president Houphouet-Boigny, announced that he was going to run against Mr Bedie. This opened up the dangerous prospect that the country would split along religious and ethnic lines. On Christmas Day 1999 there was a military coup, led by General Robert Guei, and president Bedni was forced to flee the country.

It was only a few days since the then 37-year-old Mr Thiam had been feted at Davos. He returned from a short Christmas break to find the military in charge, and to learn that he had not only been sacked, but was threatened with arrest. General Guei had to flee the country less than a year after taking power. Whether Mr Thiam could then have resumed his political career is a moot point, because he had had enough.

"I have always said I am not a politician," he remarked. "I like the business life. I like to keep some faith in human nature, and one thing I feel about politics is that if you want to lose any faith you have in people, just stay in that business. I wanted to keep a few illusions."

Luckily for Mr Thiam and his family – he is married, with two children – there were other people who valued his services. He rejoined McKinsey in Paris and in May 2000 was made a partner. Then, in 2002, he became a director of the world's seventh- biggest insurance company, Aviva, better known as Norwich Union. Prudential poached Mr Thiam less than two years ago from Aviva. Mr Tucker, the man he has now replaced, said yesterday: "We were enormously excited to get Tidjane on board in the first place. He's clearly an exceptional talent."

Prudential's chairman, Harvey McGrath, said: "Tidjane is ideally equipped to succeed Mark, given his global experience, knowledge of the sector and his outstanding leadership qualities. We are delighted to have such an outstanding and proven successor in Tidjane."

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