Tidjane Thiam: the man from the Pru

Tidjane Thiam survived a military coup in Africa, and ended up the first black boss of a FTSE 100 firm when he took the top job at the Prudential.

Which is the dirtier game, politics or finance? The new man from the Pru, who has more than "a hint of a Frederick Forsyth novel in his back story", is in no doubt, says The Independent. Given the toss-up between surviving a military coup in his native Ivory Coast and staging one at the "boring, reliable old Pru", he knows which he'd choose. Tidjane Thiam says he renounced politics for business because "I like to keep some faith in human nature". Still, you can't help wondering whether he's in "completely the wrong berth".

After his surprise promotion to chief executive of Prudential last week, Thiam was splashed all over the press as the first black boss of a FTSE 100 firm. He's not wild about the tag, says The Sunday Times. "I spent a lot of my childhood in Africa and I just cannot see myself as a minority... Okay, I happen to be living in a place where I'm physically different. But I am myself."

He is, indeed, unique: colleagues say he has "a brain the size of two solar systems". But the outstanding thing about this product of France's elite grandes coles is his sunny nature. Despite gossip that he staged a coup to unseat his boss, Mark Tucker, at the Pru (see below), few who know Thiam "believe him capable of wielding the knife". As he says, in his winning Francophone way, such stories should be taken "with a finger of salt". Still, if Thiam is a gentleman, he is also a player who has scythed his way up the ranks of the insurance industry in seven years flat. Having started out at Aviva in 2002, he was enticed to the Pru last year; indeed, he may have been rushed into the top job to stop Aviva from grabbing him back.

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Thiam was born in the Ivory Coast in 1962, but fled the troubled country as a child with his parents, says The Daily Telegraph. His father, a former journalist, was sometimes a political prisoner, sometimes a government diplomat, "depending on the politics of the time". After his rigorous French education, Thiam joined consultancy group McKinsey in Paris, but the draw of Africa was too strong. He returned in 1993, at the request of then-president Henri Konan Bdi, to tackle the country's economic crisis.

As a young government minister, Thiam "drew rave notices internationally", says The Independent. In 1998, the World Economic Forum named him one of its "global leaders for tomorrow"; the following year, he was included in Davos's "dream cabinet". But days later he returned to the Ivory Coast to find it in the grip of a military coup and was summarily imprisoned. It was interesting, he later mused, to go from Davos, "talking with Bill Gates, to being arrested. Nothing prepares you for the real thing."

Will Thiam discover the same as a leader in the shell-shocked insurance sector? He is defiant when it comes to assessing the Pru's fortunes. "We could withstand a Great Depression every year for the next ten years," he boasts. Oh dear. That looks like a clear breach of Rule No. 1 in the Footsie Top Brass Primer: avoid hostages to fortune.

Was there a conspiracy at the Pru?

"When an ambitious, well-regarded chief executive of a large FTSE 100 company quits his job unexpectedly... it's time to talk conspiracy theories," says Nils Pratley in The Guardian.

The Pru's recent history is littered with untimely departures: "one chief executive went on a business trip to Hong Kong in 2005 with his chairman, only for the latter to fly home and engineer his downfall", notes The Sunday Times.

This time, speculation has centred on current chairman Harvey McGrath, the former Man Group boss, who some say fell out with Mark Tucker, the former CEO, over strategy. Should the insurer spin off one or both of its sizeable units in Asia and the US? Or maybe mothball the UK unit? Was it a mistake to focus on buying AIG's Asian operations (a plan since abandoned)? The Pru is keeping schtum, says Pratley, although these questions will now preoccupy Thiam. Still, having built a more robust operation than arch-rival Aviva, Tucker leaves with his head held high a rare feat these days.

Thiam's appointment is "a major breakthrough for black Britons in business", says Joseph Harker in The Guardian. But we shouldn't leap to conclusions about the glass ceiling being shattered: "having one man in this position highlights inequality rather than equality". How many minorities are in the tiers below him? The most telling fact about the Powerlist of Britain's most influential black people is that three of the four top men were, like Thiam, born and raised abroad (Permira's Damon Buffini is the exception). "When we get to the point where a kid raised in a British inner-city... can reach the heights without it being headline news, we'll know things really have changed."