It comes as little surprise that Thiam is often dubbed ‘the most interesting man in insurance’
Today’s appointment to replace Mark Tucker as the boss of Britain’s second-largest insurance company, and in so doing becoming the first black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, is the latest step in a meteoric rise for a man who once claimed he’s not good at career planning.
Born in the Ivory Coast, the troubled West African country, in 1962, his family fled to France when he was four. His father, a former journalist, was – depending on the politics of the time – a political prisoner or government diplomat.
At 24 Thiam joined management consultancy McKinsey in Paris and was set to make partner in his early 30s, before the draw of Africa became too strong. In 1993, Henri Konan Bédié, the president of the Ivory Coast, asked Thiam to help sort out the country’s economic crisis. A tough job: the currency was devalued by 50pc in his first three months in the job.
"It is very complicated when you live in a developed country and you are African," he said last year. "You see the issues there and I must say I always felt guilty. I felt there was a lot to do and I could contribute."
But in December 1999 the Ivory Coast suffered a coup. Although he was on holiday in Paris, Thiam felt duty bound to return and was placed under house arrest. The military leadership offered him the role of chief of staff, but by then Thiam had had his fill of Africa’s politics and returned to McKinsey in Paris.
"I have always said I am not a politician. I like the business life. I like to keep some faith in human nature, and one thing I feel about politics is that if you want to lose any faith you have in people, yeah, just stay in that business. I wanted to keep a few illusions," he told the Guardian last year.
In 1984 Thiam received an Engineering degree from the École Polytechnique in Paris and in 1986 a degree in Civil Engineering from the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris where he was top of his class. In 1988 he received an MBA from INSEAD.
In 1986 Thiam joined McKinsey & Company in Paris. In 1989 he took a one-year sabbatical from McKinsey to participate in the World Bank’s Young Professionals Program in Washington, D.C.
In 1994 Thiam returned to Côte d’Ivoire to become Ivorian Chief Executive Officer of the National Bureau for Technical Studies and Development (the BNETD). In 1997 he became President of the National Council on Information Superhighways and National Secretary for Human Resources Development.
In 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos named him as one of the annual 100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow, and in 1999 the Forum named him a member of the Dream Cabinet.
Thiam had little experience of insurance when he was headhunted to join Aviva as group strategy director in 2002, before rising to the post of chief executive for Aviva Europe. He was poached by Prudential to become its finance director in April last year.
His latest step up the ladder came as a surprise to some in the City as incumbent Mark Tucker, who is stepping down after almost five years, is credited with driving prudential’s successful expansion into fast-growing Asian markets.
Analysts suggest that two other Aviva executives – Barry Stowe, chief executive of Pru in Asia, and Nick Prettejohn, the former Lloyd’s of London boss who heads up the UK and European arm – were perhaps more likely succession candidates.
"There are concerns that he may lack some of the nitty-gritty, as he has only been in insurance since 2002, said Kevin Ryan, insurance analyst at ING. But Mr Ryan has little doubt about Thiam’s ability. "He has the brain the size of a planet, if not two, and he’s charming with it."