Norway’s $1.2tn wealth fund's CEO on fighting unpopularity

Nicolai Tangen's previous role as a hedge fund manager and his vast personal wealth made him an unpopular choice among Norwegians

epa08324960 Nicolai Tangen poses on the street in London, England, 26 March 2020. Tangen is the new CEO of the Norges Bank Investment Management.  EPA-EFE/Nina E. Rangoy NORWAY OUT NORWAY OUT
Powered by automated translation

After months of drama and doubt, Nicolai Tangen is finally set to become the chief executive of Norway’s $1.2 trillion (Dh4.40tn) wealth fund. He says staying cool in the face of unpopularity was key.

The 54-year-old will start running the world's biggest sovereign investor on September 1. To secure the job, Mr Tangen had to strike a last-minute deal to give up the hedge fund he founded  AKO Capital  after parliament balked at the potential conflict of interest.

For months, Mr Tangen has had his face splashed all over Norwegian media as union bosses, politicians and academics listed why he was the wrong man to run their nation’s wealth fund. His life as a London-based hedge fund manager, his vast personal wealth – average Norwegians would never be able to identify with him – and his hobnobbing with the world’s jet-set elite made him an easy target for his critics.

You need to be used to, and capable of, being unpopular

Mr Tangen says that, had he known months ago what he knows now, he might not have applied for the job. But he also suggests that pleasing everyone all the time can be a path to failure. Mr Tangen draws on his experience as an investor as a reference point.

“You need to be used to, and capable of, being unpopular,” he said from Oslo. His new role has brought him to the Norway's capital city from London.

“When you’re an asset manager, you need to be used to the fact that people don’t agree with your investments,” he said. “If they do, it’s usually not a very good investment.”

He said the chief quality of a good asset manager is to be able to shift gears when the world changes, so that’s what Mr Tangen did.

The financier, whose personal fortune is estimated at about $793 million, has fallen out of favour in Norway before. In Kristiansand – a pleasant coastal town where Tangen grew up – he wanted to rebuild an old corn silo to make room for his vast collection of 20th 20th-century Nordic art. He managed to secure 100m kroner ($11m/Dh41.4m) in municipal funds to pay for the project.

The backlash was swift. Local media carried reports citing members of the political and business community who called it a “misuse of public money” and a “scandal”. The was alleged that Mr Tangen’s ties to the local power brokers had brought him unfair advantages in securing the funding. A Facebook campaign against the project got local traction and conspiracy theories soon followed. But Mr Tangen prevailed and the new museum is due to be completed in 2022.

“I’ve got good practice in being unpopular with the debate on the art silo in Kristiansand,” he said.

So when the world once again seemed united against Mr Tangen as he prepared to take on one of the most high-profile roles in global finance, he dug in his heels. He said he never “for one second” considered throwing in the towel.

FILE PHOTO: Nicolai Tangen, the incoming CEO of the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, speaks during a news conference at the central bank in Oslo, Norway, May 28, 2020. Picture taken May 28, 2020. REUTERS/Gwladys Fouche/File Photo
Nicolai Tangen, left, the new chief executive of the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, was criticised for his candidacy for months before he was chosen. Reuters

For the wealth fund, Mr Tangen’s appointment as chief executive is a clear win, according to its founding chief executive, Knut Kjaer. He’s gone on the record to say he was genuinely worried that Norway wouldn’t be able to find anyone of Mr Tangen’s calibre, after Yngve Slyngstad decided to step down as chief executive with 12 successful years under his belt.

Mr Tangen said running Norway’s wealth fund is his dream job. He declined to offer any hints as to whether he’s planning major changes once he starts, but he gave one clue as to what kind of a chief executive he’ll be.

It’s “the last time I plan to be unpopular”, he said.