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Credit Suisse Saga: Who is Tidjane Thiam?

Tidjane Thiam is a French-Ivorian banker who was the chief executive officer of Swiss bank Credit Suisse from March 2015 to February 2020. One of the world’s most brilliant financial executives and a global icon, he was shockingly ousted from his position as the chief executive of Credit Suisse, Switzerland’s second-largest bank. He was toppled due to a squalid scandal which he claimed to know nothing about.

Background

The 58-year-old banker was born into a prominent political family in Ivory Coast with dual Ivorian and French citizenship. As a global citizen and asset to his career, Thiam speaks French, English and German. Surprisingly, he studied Maths and Physics in France before joining consulting giants, McKinsey & Company in 1986. His career continued in 1994 when he became chief executive of the National Bureau for Technical Studies (BNETD) in Ivory Coast. He later resumed private practise with the same McKinsey from 2000 -2002. His journey to financial ingenuity began with Aviva, one of Britain’s biggest insurers. Here, he was rapidly promoted to board and placed in charge of Aviva’s European Business. This anomaly made headlines in all of Europe, proving that there is no prejudice against excellence.

In 2007, he was then poached by Prudential, an FTSE 100 listed company. More astonished headlines followed when he became chief executive in 2009 and began to transform the company. Moreso, He became known as ‘the $3 billion man’ when he moved to Credit Suisse. This represented the value increase of Credit Suisse shares and a corresponding drop in Prudential shares when he moved. Thus, he became one of the most extraordinary chief executives in the enigmatic world of the legendary ‘Gnomes of Zurich’. Notably, he was one of the highest-paid chief executives in Switzerland. 

Credit Suisse

When he joined, Credit Suisse, the bank founded in 1856 was going through difficult times. It was ensnared in several international investigations. The probes were mainly on the grounds of tax avoidance, forcing the bank to remit $2.6bn in fines. Furthermore, Its investment banking business was also struggling and profits were diminished. To salvage the situation, Thiam brought in some of this top lieutenants from Prudential. One of them was Pierre-Olivier Bouée, also a McKinsey Alumni who worked in consulting with Thiam. Bouée was made a chief operating officer, putting him in a position to play a crucial role in Thiam’s eviction. Another was Pakistani Iqbal Khan, who was placed in the bank’s wealth management division in 2013. His recruitment was important as Thiam had already identified wealth management instead of investment banking as the growth area.

Everything went smoothly until the squabble between neighbours Thiam and Iqbal over a demolished house and blocked views. Rising tensions suggested that Credit Suisse could no longer contain Thiam and Khan, so the latter took a bow. Khan joined Credit Suisse’s arch-rivals, UBS creating a major source of concern for the bank. The move raised fears that Khan was looking to convert the bank’s clients and staff for his new employers. Hence, acting on his own accord Bouée hired a security firm, Investigo, to tail Khan and keep tabs on everyone he met. 

Soon, Khan found out that he was being tailed and the matter got out of hand. Spies, chases, fisticuffs, compromising photographs and even suicide! Credit Suisse was moved to hire a law firm, Homburger, who presented its findings that Bouée had independently made the call to follow Khan. This resulted in the sack of Bouée and the resignation of the bank’s head of global security.

In December it was revealed that Peter Goerke, the former head of HR at the bank, had also been put under observation by Bouée. This was perhaps even more damaging as it implied a systemic use of private investigators by the bank. Consequently, the bank was faced with the dilemma of who to send to the gallows for the oversight. The decision had to be made between Thiam or Chairman Urs Rohner.

Although a number of the bank’s biggest shareholders were in favour of Thiam after a marathon 20-hour session, the board decided to oust Thiam
With a final streak of dignity, Tidjane Thiam accepted his fate and presented his results as his last act as a chief executive of the bank. He proved the expansion of the wealth management business and the generation of net new assets of CHF121bn (€113.7bn). He also presented the double growth of pre-tax profit from wealth management sector. The growth saw a 15% increase for four years in a row, from €2.5bn in 2015 to €4.4bn in 2019.

With his success in restructuring in the bank and a stellar performance in 2019, Tidjane Thiam left behind an indelible mark on Credit Suisse Bank. We look forward to more exploits from the banker who shook Europe.

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