Africa Executives Welcome Thiam Move, Say There Should Be More

JOHANNESBURG – African business leaders cheered Tidjane Thiam’s appointment as chief executive of Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse Group AG this week. So far, though, Mr. Thiam’s ascent to the top of a western multinational looks like the exception to the rule that executives from the continent still don’t reach the top of the global corporate elite.

“He’s a great leader who happens to have roots in Africa. At some point we need to get to that kind of thinking,” said Mimi Alemayehou, an executive adviser at private-equity giant Blackstone Group LP. “Maybe Africa is arriving there now.”

Major companies with strong ties to South Africa have long drawn leaders from the continent, including brewer SABMiller PLC and miner Anglo American PLC. Some African firms, like the cement-focused conglomerate Dangote Group founded by Nigeria’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, are also garnering international attention.

And financial and consulting firms such as Standard Chartered PLC and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu have tapped Africans to oversee their drive to do more business on the continent, where economic growth averages 5% annually and hundreds of millions are joining a nascent middle class.

But Mr. Thiam’s stint running Prudential PLC made him the first black leader of a major U.K. firm, and his ascent to Credit Suisse’s top post in June will place him among the first Africans to lead a multinational that wasn’t founded on the continent.

“Compared to other groups the rise of African executives is still slow,” said Alex Vines, an Africa researcher at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. When he tried to research the rise of Africans to the C-suite at global firms recently, he came up with just two names: Mr. Thiam, and Tutu Agyare, a Ghanaian director at Tullow Oil PLC.

Mr. Vines said decades of post-colonial strife that afforded only the wealthiest Africans a top-notch education and the means to travel abroad may help explain why African executives are rarer than those from other emerging markets like India and China.

Ms. Alemayehou, who has known Mr. Thiam since the 1990s when she was a staffer on Capitol Hill and he worked at McKinsey & Co., said his intellect and knack for navigating complex businesses propelled him into the corporate elite.

“I think of him as an incredible business person who is very pragmatic and hard working,” said Ms. Alemayehou, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. “My only hope is that he’s not going to be too busy to weigh in on African issues and discussions about where I know he wants to see the continent going.”

She often solicited Mr. Thiam’s input when she was working as the U.S. Treasury representative to the African Development Bank.

Patrice Mallet, a former information officer at the World Bank who graduated from high school in Ivory Coast’s capital of Abidjan with Mr. Thiam in the early 1980s, recalled a privileged but humble classmate. Mr. Thiam’s father was a diplomat, and his mother was related to Ivory Coast’s first president.

“He has always been very focused, very self-directed and smart,” said Mr. Mallet, who now leads Ivory Coast’s trade mission to South Africa.

Mr. Mallet recalled watching Mr. Thiam wring his hands along with hundreds of classmates waiting to learn whether they had secured the marks necessary to study at the universities of their choosing.

“He was going to be at the head of the pack no sweat, but that day even he was tense,” Mr, Mallet said. “For those of us who get a chance to work around the world, he is breaking barriers for a lot of young Africans to follow suit.”

After his studies in Paris, Mr. Thiam followed many Africans from former French colonies who find a smoother pathway to corporate success in the U.K. than in France.

“France gave me the best education for free, but never gave me a job, so I left,” Mr. Thiam told French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron at a recent meeting at the French embassy in London, according to a person present.


– Matina Stevis in Nairobi contributed to this post. 

Leave a Comment