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.

Last week, Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of the Prudential, launched an audacious bid to buy AIA, the Asian arm of US-based insurer AIG.

To pay for it, he is asking shareholders to stump up for Britain’s biggest ever rights issue. If he succeeds, he will double the size of Prudential, making it the largest life insurer in the world outside China, with 80% to 90% of its business in Asia.

If he fails, according to one investor, he will be toast.

So who is Tidjane Thiam, and what makes him tick?

He has had an extraordinarily dramatic life, and he could not be more different from the traditional “man from the Pru”.


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.

Robert Greenhill, now the managing director of the World Economic Forum in Davos, was Thiam’s room-mate at business school INSEAD.

He says that Mr Thiam “had a great combination of a first class mind, with a really passionate interest in people and in issues and, which is rare in MBA students, great courage in just doing what he believed was right”.

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.”

The two men worked together, often negotiating through the night, on bringing in private sector and World Bank money to build an airport, an electricity plant, hospitals and schools.

Coup survivor

In this job, and afterwards, when he was made Minister of Planning and Development, Thiam was determined to fight corruption, which made him unpopular with the old guard, and put his life in danger.

In 1999, when Mr Thiam was abroad for Christmas, the Ivorian government was overthrown.

Robert Greenhill, his old room-mate, remembers that Mr Thiam went back “to ensure that his people were safe, and so he put himself personally at risk in order to meet the commitment he had to the people who worked for him. And that is absolutely Tidjane.”

He was put under house arrest, but not imprisoned.

Then the military government asked him to work for them instead. He refused, and left the country.

“I lost absolutely everything,” Mr Thiam has said. “For six months, I had no job, no career, nothing at all. It taught me a lot about myself. If you’ve been in a situation where you have nothing, there’s nothing much you’re afraid of.”

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Mr Thiam eventually rejoined McKinsey in Paris, before moving to the British insurance company Aviva (then Norwich Union) in 2002.

He warned the head-hunters that if Aviva did not want a black African francophone, there was no point him going to the interview. He felt he had suffered before because of his race.

But he is impressed by how accepting Britain has been.

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.”

His old friend Stephen Greenhill is sure that Mr Thiam wants to be able to say at the end of his life, that “‘I have made a positive difference.’ I am sure he passionately believes that.”