Tidjane Thiam first black CEO of a FTSE 100 company

Prudential’s next chief executive last year was voted No 2 in a list of Britain’s most influential black people

20 March 2009 – Tidjane Thiam, dubbed by analysts the coolest man in insurance, is the currently finance director of Britain’s second-biggest insurer, will take the reins from Mark Tucker as chief executive of Prudential in October.

Mr Thiam was widely tipped as a successor to Mr Tucker when he was poached from Aviva, the Prudential’s main rival, in September 2007.

Prudential’s move to hasten succession plans astonished the City and raised speculation – denied by the company – of having been prompted by fears of his being swiped by rivals.

“Of course you won’t understand me as I can’t speak fluent English,” he said as he presented Prudential’s annual results, yesterday.

On the contrary, the Ivory Coast-born French national is multilingual and enviably articulate.

A graduate of Insead, Mr Thiam began his career with McKinsey, for which he worked from 1986 to 1994 in both London and Paris. After leaving McKinsey, Mr Thiam returned to the Ivory Coast and spent five years in politics, culminating in his appointment in 1998 as Minister of Planning and Development.

On his return from a Christmas spent with his family abroad, Mr Thiam arrived in a country in the thick of a military coup and was promptly arrested and imprisoned for several weeks.

He once recalled: "It was a very interesting experience to go from (the World Economic Forum in) Davos, talking to Bill Gates, to being arrested. It’s something that you can read as many books as you want about, but nothing prepares you for the real thing."

He was paradoxically offered a job by the military as its chief of staff.Instead, he rejoined McKinsey, before going to Aviva in 2002 – from where the Pru headhunted him in 2007.

Despite the surprise over the timing, analysts last night praised Mr Thiam’s appointment. Kevin Ryan, of ING Financial Markets, added: "He has a brain the size of two solar systems – he is a very, very clever bloke."

Mr Thiam’s appointment was hailed by unions and groups promoting greater diversity in the workplace. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “This is very encouraging but

we need more than one black CEO at the top of a FTSE 100 company.”

Sandra Kerr, director of the advocacy group Race for Opportunity, said it was a “watershed moment for British business and should be widely celebrated”.

Most UK public companies do not track the ethnicity of their board members but Race for Opportunity estimates that black and ethnic minorities held 6.8 per cent of management positions at the end of 2007, while comprising 10.3 per cent of the population.

In 2003 a review of non-executive directors led by Derek Higgs, a former investment banker, had found British boardrooms were overwhelmingly dominated by ageing, white male corporate executives. The review found non-British nationals accounted for only 7 per cent of non-executive directors, British citizens from ethnic minorities 1 per cent and women 6 per cent.

The US has a broader ethnic representation in top jobs. As of Diversity Inc’s survey last summer, 19 chief executives in the Fortune 500 were from ethnic minorities, including five black people, seven Latinos and seven Asians. The first black chief executive, Franklin D. Raines of Fannie Mae, was appointed in 1999.

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