MADRID, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Emilio Botin, patriarch of one of Europe’s top corporate dynasties who died on Tuesday at 79, was credited with turning a local Spanish lender into one of the world’s biggest banks and helping to drive Spain’s remarkable economic growth of the 1990s.
Renowned for his deal-making prowess, Botin - or Don Emilio as he was known at Santander, the euro zone’s largest bank - had quite a pedigree. He followed in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather as chairman of the bank. His daughter Ana Patricia Botin, the eldest of six children, is tipped to succeed him.
With Botin at the helm for 28 years, Santander snapped up banks across Latin America in the 1990s, leading a broader corporate Conquista by Spanish companies on the continent it had colonised centuries earlier. Santander swooped on British lender Abbey National in 2004, a 9 billion euro takeover that would catapult Spain to the centre of the global banking system.
“He was a man capable of making Santander the most important bank of our country ... and was a key figure in the internationalisation of the Spanish financial sector,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Wednesday.
If there were doubts about his mettle when he first took over, Botin’s tight and long-running management of Santander came to be considered key to the lender’s success.
“In the 80s, when his father died, the feeling here in (the city of) Santander was ...‘When little Emilio arrives, what will become of the bank?',” said Miguel Angel Revilla, former president of Cantabria, whose capital is the city of Santander.
They needn’t have worried. “He oversaw everything, and Banco Santander had some of the best professionals. He didn’t hire friends but asked who was the best,” Revilla said.
When much of Spain’s banking sector sought a bailout in 2012, Santander was virtually unscathed; the bank’s international footprint protected it from the country’s broader economic crash.
Like other European business dynasties such as Italy’s Agnellis or Germany’s Quandts, the Botins have loomed large over their country’s political and social establishment. Botin, for example, led a group of top bankers in putting pressure on the Spanish government in 2012 to sort out the financial problems of local lender Bankia, which was eventually nationalised.
Botin’s great-grandfather discovered the first prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira in northern Spain in 1879. Today, the family is building an arts centre in the northern city of Santander, a testament to the clan’s influence over the northern port city. Botin himself, however, shunned socialite events, preferring to spend time with his family or on hunting trips.
His wife, piano player Paloma O‘Shea, was awarded the title of marquess by King Juan Carlos in 2008 for her contributions to music. Botin’s personal fortune was last estimated at $1.1 billion dollars by Forbes.
The Botin family’s influence over Santander hasn’t escaped criticism, however. Though the family owns only 2 percent of the bank’s stock, there have been three members, including Botin, on the board. Botin’s reputation also took a hit in 2011 when the family paid 200 million euros in penalties to avoid charges of tax evasion related to a secret Swiss bank account. The case was doubly embarrassing as it was revealed that the money was kept in rival bank HSBC.
Botin joined Santander in 1956 - a century after the bank was founded by Queen Isabel II. He worked for many years with his father, succeeding him at the age of 51, in 1986, the year Spain joined the European Union.
Botin lost no time once he took the reins as chairman. In 1989, he raised the rates paid out on Santander’s savings accounts, launching a price war with competitors. In 1994, he gave the first indication of a deal-making mettle that would become his signature trait, buying troubled Spanish lender Banesto.
The nineties brought a big expansion into Latin America. Santander pushed into Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, Puerto Rico and Uruguay. It was a strategy that would eventually prove crucial in helping shield the bank from Spain’s crippling economic recession after the global financial crisis.
While he was negotiating the 2004 takeover of Abbey National, Botin shooed advisers out of the room to make his final offer, according to people who worked on the deal. After Abbey National, the deals continued.
In 2007, Santander bought Italian lender Antonveneta for 6.6 billion euros, only to sell it after just a few months to Italian bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena - for a thumping 9 billion euros.
According to details of the transaction that emerged after several years, Emilio Botin successfully used a rival bid from French bank BNP Paribas to put pressure on Monte dei Paschi. A source involved with the deal said Botin managed to “to create a tension” to boost the price. The Antonveneta purchase would eventually lead to a host of financial troubles for Monte dei Paschi. Santander declined to comment on Botin’s role in the deal at the time.
The scale of the bank is evident from the huge complex outside Madrid that houses its headquarters, with landscaped grounds featuring thousand-year-old olive trees and internal buses to take employees around the site. The complex includes nurseries and hairdressers for employees.
People who worked with him say Botin was a straight-talking disciplinarian who relished micro-managing aspects of the bank’s management, even down to the Santander branding on the side of Formula One cars.
“He had a great capacity for learning and never assumed he knew everything. He was always willing to learn, which was a great capacity for a man of his seniority to have,” said former Royal Bank of Scotland Chairman George Mathewson, who worked with Botin for 25 years.
Botin was the embodiment of the bank, always wearing a red tie to match the Santander logo. In 2012, he met former Spanish king Juan Carlos in Brazil dressed from head to toe in Santander red, from his Bermuda shorts to his trainers.
Friends and associates say he was extremely health-conscious. He was often seen jogging in the grounds of the bank’s offices in Santander and was careful about what he ate.
In recent years, Botin had handed over day-to-day operations of the bank to longtime associates, but he remained the main strategist, and people at the bank say that until recently he had been planning future engagements. At the bank, word was that Botin had wanted his chairmanship to outlast that of his father, who retired at 83. (Writing By Alessandra Galloni; Editing by Will Waterman)