To his family in Africa, he was “l’ultime espoir” — the last hope.
Tidjane Thiam, it’s safe to say, didn’t disappoint.
Over the past 30 years, Thiam has traced the arc of ambition from his native Ivory Coast to the top of a venerable British insurer, Prudential Plc, sweeping aside the last racial barrier in U.K. boardrooms.
But for all his success as the top Man from the Pru, few would have pegged Thiam as a future Gnome of Zurich. His appointment Tuesday as the next chief executive officer of Credit Suisse Group AG will place a man with no experience of running an investment bank atop one of the world’s largest financial companies.
Born in Ivory Coast, raised in Morocco and educated in France, at the elite Ecole Polytechnique, the francophone Thiam has spent a lifetime defying the odds. By his mid-20s, he was working in Paris for McKinsey & Co., the high temple of consulting. By his mid-30s, he was back in Ivory Coast — and under house arrest, following a military coup. By his late-40s, he was in Britain, as the first black executive of a FTSE-100 company.