BRITAIN’S FIRST BLACK CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF A LEADING COMPANY
The new man from the Pru – 46, an Arsenal fan, and Britain’s first black chief executive of a leading company.
Appointment seen as big step forward for equality; Chief executive will be paid £875,000 plus bonus
It took more than 200 years for the US to elect a black president. It took Britain a bit longer to install its first black chief executive of a leading company. Tidjane Thiam is a former government minister who survived a military coup, a one-time management consultant and a serious Arsenal fan. Yesterday it was announced he will take over as chief executive of the Prudential insurance company in October.
The 46-year old describes himself as “black, African, Francophone and 6ft 4ins”. Thiam is not a new face in corporate Britain: last year he was ranked second on the Powerlist of the UK’s 100 most influential black people, behind billionaire entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim and ahead of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and government minister David Lammy.
Yesterday’s announcement comes 12 years after Marjorie Scardino became the first female boss of a top UK public company. There are still only three women leading the biggest names in British business and two of them are American. There are even fewer black faces in the boardroom; apart from Thiam there is only one black director of a FTSE 100 company – Ken Olisa, a part-time non-executive director at Thomson-Reuters.
When Derek Higgs published a bitter critique of Britain’s boardrooms six years ago, he said it was time to change the “pale, male and middle-aged” culture. Since then, little has moved on.
Michael Eboda, who compiles the Powerlist, said: “If you look at America, one of the reasons Obama was electable is because it is not unusual to see black people in positions of authority there.”
Yesterday the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is run by Trevor Phillips, ranked fifth on the Powerlist, refused to comment on Thiam’s promotion and why it had taken so long for a black person to lead a top UK company. “We don’t know enough about the recruitment process,” a spokeswoman said.
But Joe Lampel, professor of strategy at the Cass Business School, said: “To become a chief executive in Britain you have to belong to the right social networks. Performance counts less than being well connected. It is not so much about back-scratching, but about boards preferring CEOs they are familiar with and comfortable with.”
A headhunter who advises several FTSE 100 firms said : “There are plenty of people in management roles from Asian and other ethnic backgrounds, but once you get to the top, it is all about how clubbable you are and how well you fit in with a largely white male team.”
In a statement yesterday Thiam paid tribute to the current chief executive, Mark Tucker, who hired him and is stepping down.
Both Thiam and the Pru refused to comment on his rise, but in a previous interview with the Guardian Thiam revealed he had refused to attend any more job interviews unless headhunters told potential employers that he was black before they met him: “I was tired of the usual answer, which was, ‘We like you, you are a great guy but this is a division with 10,000 employees and we just don’t think they would understand having someone like you at the helm.'”
Thiam, who will earn £875,000 a year with a bonus scheme which could double that, was born in the Ivory Coast and educated in France and by his mid-20s was working for McKinsey. He then moved back to Ivory Coast and became a government minister until a coup saw him back in Paris after a spell under house arrest.