Tidjane Thiam’s face was on the cover of the main Swiss newspapers on Wednesday, along with the words “non-banker”, “carrier of hope” and, in particular, “black”.
“Long overdue” was the view of Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger regarding the change at the top of Switzerland’s second-largest bank, which also signalled a “fundamental strategic and cultural shift” at the institution.
On Tuesday it was announced that Credit Suisse had swooped on the boss of British insurer Prudential to lead it in a push to manage more of the wealth of Asia’s fast-growing multi-millionaires’ club.
The 52-year-old former Ivory Coast government minister will in June replace American CEO Brady Dougan, who has drawn fire for failing to reform the bank and scale back its risky investment banking business fast enough.
“The size of the expectations in the black African without banking experience could be seen in the 8% rise in the bank’s shares yesterday at the start of trading,” said the Tages-Anzeiger, adding that Urs Rohner, the bank’s chairman, had “landed a coup” in the new CEO.
“Of course, he can be accused of hanging on to Dougan for too long – the time would have been ripe to remove the American after last year’s admission of guilt in the tax dispute with the US – but now Rohner can pride himself on having used the time to carefully assess the new boss and name an outsider with a respectable record on whom hopes are pinned.”
Rohner too was “tarnished” after the US deal, the paper added. “The clean break at the top now takes him out of the line of fire for a start”.
It concluded that Credit Suisse had “shown courage” in handing the reins over to Thiam but added that the bank’s 46,000 or so employees were not the only ones that would have to re-adapt to the move – the public would, too.
“It’s the first time a manager with black skin has made it to the top of a traditional Swiss company. Bienvenue, Monsieur Thiam!”
“Credit Suisse: an African follows an American” was the front page headline of Le Temps.
In its editorial, the Geneva paper said the board had taken its time in replacing Dougan, “without doubt because the ideal replacement hadn’t been easy to find”.
Its first reaction was that Thiam was a “bold choice but a sensible one”, also noting that France “was already regretting letting a neglected pearl slip through its fingers”.
It, too, concluded its editorial with the observation that Thiam, a citizen of France and Ivory Coast, is the first leader of such a large Swiss company to have African origins.
“This is undoubtedly the best response the business world could give to the February 9 initiative [to curb immigration, rejected by French-speaking cantons but approved by the German-speaking majority]. In order to prosper, Switzerland needs bright workers for whom recruiters also need to look abroad.”
“A black heads the Zurich big bank for the first time” was a headline in tabloid Blick. In its equally unsubtle first sentence, it noted that “the new CS boss can do something that Brady Dougan never learnt in his eight years: speak German”.
It said the “1.91m giant” had been on no one’s list in Switzerland to be Dougan’s successor, but “in London he’s a big cheese”, highlighting the fact that in the five years he was head of Prudential, profits more than doubled.
As for Dougan, Blick says he’s the “fall guy” in the reshuffle. “After 25 years at CS he’s being bumped off. In 2010, the American cashed a super bonus of CHF71 million ($71 million) which turned out to be a boomerang – from then on he was immediately seen as a con man. Unfairly – no one worked harder than Dougan.”
The paper admitted that CS shares fell on his watch, “but he showed his ability during the financial crisis. Unlike UBS, CS didn’t need state help. The bank isn’t implicated in the latest tax fraud scandal”.
It concluded: “Dougan might not have had time for German lessons, but he had his shop in order.”
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) talked of a “soft putsch” at Credit Suisse.
“Not every Swiss bank manager can claim to have ever lost a job because of a military putsch. This, however, is part of Tidjane Thiam’s CV."
He had proven to be a quick learner, the paper acknowledged, “something the non-banker must once again prove at CS”.
Lex in the Financial Times said at first sight Thiam looked like an odd choice – “he is an insurance specialist and emerging markets specialist. Credit Suisse is a European bank with a struggling business model” – before adding that in many ways the switch makes sense.
“While Mr Thiam’s banking experience is limited, he will be familiar with many of the challenges Credit Suisse faces: regulation; the need to find growth outside Europe; and the difficulties of helping people to secure their financial future.”
That last point was the key to the appointment, Lex said. “With interest rates low and falling, finding a decent return is as tough for Pru’s life insurance clients as it is for Credit Suisse’s private bank clients.”
Regarding the investment bank, the column pointed out that analysts at Deutsch Bank had estimated that if Credit Suisse were to cut most of its debt trading business, the drop in earnings would more than be offset by the shares’ potential re-rating.
“Coming from outside investment banking, Mr Thiam may have more appetite for such cuts than an insider would. A fresh approach is just what Credit Suisse needs.”