CEO of World’s Biggest Wealth Fund Reflects on Being Unpopular

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After months of drama and doubt, Nicolai Tangen is finally set to become the chief executive of Norway’s $1.2 trillion 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 Sept. 1. To secure the job, Tangen had to strike a last-minute deal to give up the hedge fund he founded —AKO Capital LLP — after parliament balked at the potential conflict of interest.

For months, 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 piggy bank. 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.

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. 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 by phone from Oslo, where he’s moved from London in order to do his new job.

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

Art Collection

The financier, whose personal fortune is estimated at about $793 million, has fallen out of favor 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 century Nordic art. He managed to secure 100 million kroner ($11 million) 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 implication was that 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 Tangen prevailed, and the new museum is due to be completed in 2022.

“I’ve gotten 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 Tangen as he prepared to take on one of the most high-profile roles in global finance, he dug in his heels. He says he never “for one second” considered throwing in the towel.

For the wealth fund, Tangen’s appointment as CEO 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 Tangen’s caliber, after Yngve Slyngstad decided to step down as CEO with 12 successful years under his belt.

Tangen says 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 did provide one clue as to what kind of a CEO he’ll be.

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

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