Tightrope Thiam: comeback CEO stung by a spying scandal

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LONDON/ZURICH (Reuters) – Tidjane Thiam is unlikely to quietly retire after his abrupt exit as chief executive of Credit Suisse, some of those who have worked with him predict.

CEO of Credit Suisse Group Tidjane Thiam attends the 2019 New Economy Forum in Beijing, China November 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

The 57-year-old Ivorian rebounded from military detention following a government coup in his home country and then from a disastrous takeover attempt of AIA whilst running insurer Prudential to ascend ever higher in the corporate world.

“A bit like walking on a tightrope”, is how Thiam described leadership in 2012. “It’s rarely comfortable…..once you start looking down you risk falling, but you get on that rope again and again,” he said in the BBC interview.

Born to a Senegalese father and mother from a prominent Ivory Coast family, the avid Arsenal soccer fan was running a government department of 4,000 people by the age of 30.

Leaving the country after the 1999 coup, he became a partner at consultancy McKinsey, before entering insurance at Aviva and then moving on to Prudential, becoming the FTSE 100’s first black CEO in 2009.

His appointment at Credit Suisse in 2015 was a surprise move by Chairman Urs Rohner – bringing in someone who had never worked in a bank to turn around a franchise still ailing from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

It took three years of cost cuts, job losses and more than $10 billion of capital hikes until the lender posted its first annual profit under him.

But Thiam won plaudits for putting the bank back on an even keel, earning more recurring fee income from wealthy clients and relying less on volatile trading revenue.

MESSY CLASH

Winning round the Swiss establishment was harder. He clashed with Rohner, and a perception that he was happier on the global conference circuit mixing with world leaders than he was talking to bankers and local politicians in Zurich and Bern irked some.

Inside the bank, some senior staff said they felt cut off from the CEO who, even in his earliest days, could appear insulated from internal criticism by loyalists.

“The financial strategy was working, but the takeaway is soft skills are also needed in this position,” said Filippo Alloatti, a senior analyst at Federated Hermes, who holds Credit Suisse bonds.

A messy clash with Iqbal Khan, a rising star Thiam had drafted in to turn around the bank’s wealth management business, ultimately led to his demise.

Revelations surfaced in Swiss newspapers last year that the pair noisily argued at a drinks party at Thiam’s house after Khan had moved next door and began a construction project.

Khan quit the bank in July, saying in August that he was to join rival UBS. A month later he confronted a private detective who he suspected was following him and his wife through Zurich.

A Credit Suisse investigation concluded it was an isolated incident orchestrated by Pierre-Olivier Bouee, one of Thiam’s closest aides, to ensure Khan wasn’t poaching staff.

But the case widened in December after details emerged of other instances of staff surveillance. Thiam denies any knowledge of them, but it went down badly in Zurich.

And an ensuing regulatory investigation ultimately emboldened Rohner to end Thiam’s reign.

Those who worked with him previously say he’s unlikely to be in the wilderness for long.

“He is as tough as nails, as tough as they get,” said a former colleague from Prudential.

“It’s more a question of what he wants to do next”.

Thiam’s name has regularly cropped up in speculation about potential future heads of the IMF.

That job is likely to be closed following the appointment of Kristalina Georgieva in October, although the former colleague said other government work could be an option.

His successor, Swiss national Thomas Gottstein, will likely have an easier time of it in Zurich from the establishment, though living up to Thiam’s strategic nous will be tougher.

“He will be a hard act to follow,” said Martin Gilbert, vice chairman at asset manager Standard Life Aberdeen.

($1 = 0.9767 Swiss francs)

Reporting by Carolyn Cohn, Sinead Cruise and Abhinav Ramnarayan in London and Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; Writing by Rachel Armstrong; Editing by Alexander Smith

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