Posted on October 6, 2020

The Short Tenure and Abrupt Ouster of Banking’s Sole Black C.E.O.

Kate Kelly, New York Times, October 3, 2020

Last November, Urs Rohner, the chairman of the board of Credit Suisse, had a party at a Zurich restaurant to celebrate his 60th birthday. Among the scores of friends, family and business associates who gathered, attendees say, there was a single Black guest: Tidjane Thiam, the bank’s chief executive.

The festivities had a Studio 54 theme, with 1970s costumes and hired entertainers. Mr. Thiam watched as a Black performer came onstage dressed as a janitor, and began to dance to music while sweeping the floor. Mr. Thiam excused himself and left the room. His partner and another couple at his table, including the chief executive of the British drug company GSK, followed.

Eventually they returned to the party, only to be astonished again. A group of Mr. Rohner’s friends took the stage to perform their own musical number, all wearing Afro wigs. {snip}

For Mr. Thiam, now 58, the party was just one in a series of painful incidents that shaped his five years atop Credit Suisse, when he was the only Black chief executive in the top tier of banking. Some moments were shocking, others disturbing; most had to do with tensions around being Black in a predominantly white industry and an overwhelmingly white city.


Now the number of Black chief executives at the highest level of banking is back to zero. In February, Credit Suisse’s board forced Mr. Thiam’s resignation, after a deeply embarrassing surveillance scandal erupted on his watch. When Mr. Thiam’s No. 2 admitted he had ordered investigators to spy on employees, the chief executive found himself with few allies and no leverage to survive.

His ouster attracted remarkably little notice outside Zurich, coming as it did months before a global reckoning with systemic bias, and occurring 4,000 miles from Wall Street. {snip}

Whether it’s labeled racism, xenophobia or some other form of intolerance, what’s clear is that Mr. Thiam never stopped being seen in Switzerland as someone who didn’t belong.


Tidjane Thiam (pronounced tee-JOHN tee-YAHM) was born in Ivory Coast to an elite family active in politics. {snip}


{snip} After earning a degree in engineering and a master’s in business, Mr. Thiam worked at the World Bank, then in the Paris office of McKinsey.


He ran the European operations of Aviva, a British insurer, and in 2009 was named chief executive of the British financial services firm Prudential — the first Black person to run one of the London Stock Exchange’s hundred largest companies. {snip}

Mr. Rohner, the chairman of Credit Suisse, approached Mr. Thiam about the possibility of running the bank in 2014. {snip}


At the time, Credit Suisse was in a deep funk. Years after the financial crisis, it was still heavily dependent on costly trading strategies, and its wealth management unit trailed UBS, the bank’s archrival in Zurich. Investors were impatient with its languishing stock price. On the March 2015 day when Mr. Thiam’s hiring was announced, Credit Suisse shares rose 7 percent.

His restructuring plan involved thousand of layoffs and paring back sales and trading, making many employees nervous for their jobs. It was an executive he promoted, however, who gave Mr. Thiam one of his first unsettling experiences in Switzerland.

To bolster Credit Suisse’s private wealth management business, he had tapped Iqbal Khan, 39, who had been born in Pakistan but moved to Switzerland as a child. The two were discussing strategy one day late in 2015, according to people familiar with the incident, when Mr. Khan announced that he’d bought the house next door to Mr. Thiam’s in Herrliberg, a suburb with lofty prices and views of Lake Zurich. Mr. Thiam asked Mr. Khan if he was serious. Mr. Khan said yes.


Mr. Thiam made an effort to embrace Zurich society. He visited Swiss business leaders, spoke on panels convened by Swiss media and attended an annual spring festival in traditional Swiss garb: a Napoleon-style hat and matching navy cloak. But before long, aspects of his lifestyle began to irritate the locals. With Credit Suisse making a show of cutting costs, the Swiss press began to catalog Mr. Thiam’s first-class air travel and stays in presidential suites. One column accused him of taking helicopters to events and traveling with an entourage, calling him “King Thiam.”


Others were more direct about labeling Mr. Thiam an outsider. At Credit Suisse’s annual investor meeting in 2016, a shareholder named Ingeborg Ginsberg, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor, questioned Mr. Thiam’s background.

“The bank is called Suisse — Credit Suisse,” Ms. Ginsberg said in German. Referencing Brady Dougan, Mr. Thiam’s American predecessor, she added: “I asked him last year if he doesn’t have a conflict of interest. I ask the same question of Mr. Thiam, if he can understand me: Does he not have a conflict of interest? I heard him mention the third world — is that really what we want? That a good, solid, Swiss bank sinks to the level of the third world?”

On the dais, where Mr. Thiam sat next to Mr. Rohner, their shock was evident.

Mr. Rohner interrupted. “You should not make such accusations, without declaration, into the room,” he said, adding: “We do not always take foreigners, we always choose the best man for the job, and we have found that man.”


In predominantly white Zurich, a city of just 400,000, his powerful role and his skin color made him stand out. Mr. Thiam stopped driving his Porsche Cayenne to work, fearing that any run-in with another motorist, even over a parking spot, would turn into a media incident. On the tram, his adult sons were often the only Black riders — and the first to be asked for their tickets. Merely by appearing at a local nightclub, they could trigger gossip. Mr. Thiam felt that he was under a microscope; when his sister planned a surprise visit, an overeager Zurich hotel worker noticed her booking and shared the details with Mr. Thiam’s office, ruining the occasion.


Things were beginning to sour inside Credit Suisse, too. Despite an improved balance sheet, Credit Suisse’s shares were down, hurt by stock offerings Mr. Thiam had deemed necessary to strengthen capital reserves. He told associates he felt underappreciated by board members, some of whom faulted him for Credit Suisse’s lack of growth in China.

In August 2018, a local financial publication wrote that Mr. Thiam was “feted abroad, unloved in Switzerland,” adding: “Prone to imperious behavior and prickly to criticism, Thiam has lost grasp of the Swiss sense of proportionality.” News articles often drew belittling comments. One reader of an especially critical Zurich blog called him a “fruit salesman” and added, “Go home, fool!” Another wrote: “I hope he sends his money home. Then we can classify it as development aid.”


Mr. Thiam was closer to the precipice than he knew. In early 2019, he hosted a holiday party at his home. Mr. Khan had by then moved in next door, and Mr. Thiam had planted trees to obstruct the view. At the party, Mr. Khan got into a heated discussion with Mr. Thiam’s partner about the landscaping, upsetting her, and the two men stepped downstairs for a private word. Mr. Khan quickly left the scene.

Neither executive will say exactly what transpired. But later that year, Mr. Khan shocked Zurich by decamping to UBS. Wealth management had been the most successful aspect of Mr. Thiam’s tenure, and now his star executive would be working for the bank’s biggest competitor.


That September, Mr. Khan and his wife were driving to lunch at a Zurich restaurant when they noticed they were being followed. Mr. Khan parked and confronted the man, who turned out to be a detective from a Swiss firm called Investigo. An argument ensued, during which each party has since accused the other of becoming physically aggressive. Mr. Khan filed a police report, and both Credit Suisse and the canton opened investigations.

“Spygate,” as the Swiss media called it, was a sensation. At Credit Suisse, the chief operating officer, Pierre-Olivier Bouée, admitted to ordering the surveillance, saying he had suspected Mr. Khan of trying to poach employees. He resigned. Mr. Thiam, who denied any knowledge of the spy games, was cleared. But Mr. Bouée was not just his No. 2; he had followed Mr. Thiam to the bank from Prudential, and the chief executive’s name was deeply tarnished by association.


Three large shareholders — two American, one British — publicly came to Mr. Thiam’s defense. David Herro, a top executive at Harris Associates, a Chicago fund, suggested that the opposition to Mr. Thiam was racially motivated. {snip}

But Mr. Thiam had too little support in his corner. On Feb. 7, he resigned. A Swiss member of his executive team was named his successor.

As chief executive, Mr. Thiam was responsible for everything at Credit Suisse, and the surveillance activity was widely viewed as despicable. But it’s an open question whether a C.E.O. from a different background might have survived. {snip}


For his sister Yamousso, one question about the Swiss still lingers. “I would be curious to know,” she said, “if today they’d finally have the honesty to recognize that seeing a Black man at the top of one of their most prestigious companies was unbearable.”