Tidjane Thiam has his eye firmly set on Africa and Latin America where he plans to mirror his global insurance and finance company’ current success in the Asian markets.
“We are doing exactly the same thing in Asia as Prudential did in the Western economies during the 19thand 20thcenturies and we will do the same thing in Africa and we will do the same thing again in Latin America. It is a very effective model,” he said.
Thiam, who was appointed in 2009 as the first-ever black, Chief Executive Officer of an FTSE 100 company, Prudential plc, the UK-based international financial services group, spoke candidly about his leading role and his strategies for running a global business during an interview with CNN International’s African Voices.
PART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT
The international financial services provider was established in England more than 150 years ago, but now does much of its business in Asia, where there is a growing middle class.
Thiam said: “We provide protection and the reality is as people evolve, come out of poverty and join the middle class they have more to protect and they are more concerned about protection, it’s something that is happening across the world.
“So our natural market is the middle class and that is the reason why we are in Asia. There is an explosion of the middle class and quite frankly it’s a huge opportunity. We provide a valuable service to our clients, to protect their family, to send their child to university and so on.”
Prudential sealed its success during the 19thand early 20thcentury by supporting Western economies at a time when they were going through a developmental phase with the building of railroads and the setting up of related infrastructure. Africa and Latin America, which are going through similar phases now, are the next logical step for Prudential.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
As well as operating in the UK and Asia, including Vietnam and the Philippines, Prudential also serves the United States and has a total of 26 million customers with £363 billion of assets under management. It is also listed on stock exchanges in Hong Kong, Singapore and New York.
Dealing with a global business and all the quirks those different nations present is something Thiam manages by closely communicating with his team and through the right kind of delegation.
“I think you have to engage people; so what I did at the beginning is spend a lot of time with my team to try and define a common ambition, or common goal. It took several months to do that and you find that cuts across cultures,” he said.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about how we operate together and it’s interesting because we run a very federal organisation. It is very important to know what you don’t know in an organisation and one thing I believe in is decentralising the decisions to a front line.
“I don’t have the ambition from London to set the product strategy in Jakarta, people there on the field do that. However, things like capital, risk and cash are centralised because that is important.”
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
Thiam was born on the Ivory Coast in 1962, but spent much of his childhood in Morocco before returning to the Ivory Coast when he was 16. He studied mathematics and physics in France before joining the management consultants McKinsey & Company in 1986.
From 1994-1999 he worked in the Ivory Coast as Chief Executive of the National Bureau for Technical Studies reporting directly to the Prime Minister and the President becoming Chairman of the Bureau in 1998 and Minister of Planning and Development. Following the Ivorian coup of 1999 he resumed a private sector career, which eventually led him to securing his ground-breaking post at Prudential.
Being a black man in a high profile business role has made no difference whatsoever to Thiam, who says prejudice is other people’s problem not his. He said: “It’s their problem, it’s not your problem, you are what you are and that’s that.
“I think what you learn very quickly is that you have to be yourself and how others react to you in a way, it’s their challenge. If you try to be a chameleon it doesn’t work.”
DOING IT MY WAY
Being a leader is a label Thiam shies away from, as he much prefers to get things done and see solid results from his achievements.
He said: “I like to achieve things and the world is such that to achieve things you need to lead people, so for me it’s more a means to an end. It is not something that comes naturally to me.
“I am a relatively private, not very social person, but if you’re motivated by a result, you understand that you need to take people with you and you need to learn how to motivate people, how to engage with them. It is much nicer to be able to achieve things with others and be able to celebrate.
“There is a lot of gratification from setting a goal, dreaming about something and then being able to achieve it, it’s a nice feeling.”