Spain's top banker gears up to make his mark in UK

The Chairman of Banco Santander Central Hispano, Emilio Botin, is undoubtedly the most powerful banker in Spain. Given the enormous influence of the banking sector in the Spanish economy, this means he is probably the nation's most powerful man.

Now that his bank virtually has a clear run to acquire Abbey, Mr Botin is poised to become an important player on the UK stage as well.

He is the third generation of a Cantabrian banking family who transformed a little local bank into Spain's top banking group, 10th ranked in Europe, 13th in the world. His family are rich, of course. Santander declines to comment, but Forbes put the family fortune at more than $1bn.

He is also boundlessly ambitious. Mr Botin's pursuit of Abbey, in Europe's biggest cross-border banking deal, is fuelled by his desire for world domination, or as Santander's spokesman prefers to put it: "Our ambitions to be a global bank".

Mr Botin is energetic for a man pushing 70: he works Sundays and holidays, and has tested corporate loyalty by calling snap meetings on Christmas Eve. Emilio Botin "lives for banking", he says, quoting his father. "The ambition is to be second to none."

The chairman's grandfather, the first Emilio, ran a modest outfit founded in 1857 to help finance trade between the port of Santander and Latin America. His son Emilio built the bank into a nationwide operation and an important financier for Spanish industry during General Franco's 40-year dictatorship.

In the late 1950s, when an impoverished Barcelona football club sought funds to replace its stadium, Spanish banks declined to finance such an ambitious project. Santander offered to put up 95 per cent of the money if Barcelona's 30,000 club members opened accounts in the bank. The deal was struck, Barcelona built the biggest stadium in Europe, and Santander penetrated Spain's richest region, strengthening its stake by later snapping up a local bank.

Despite profiting during Franco's rule, the Botins did not hesitate to adapt to the new situation after his death in 1975. Within a year, the present boss's father announced that he favoured legalising the communist party - a contentious decision that was crucial in setting Spain on its peaceful transition to democracy.

Today's patriarch, Emilio III, 69, became the chairman in 1986 when his father stepped down at the age of 84. He too takes care to be close to political power. He helped launch the career of Jose Maria Aznar. But when Mr Aznar was ousted as prime minister by the socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Mr Botin was the first to congratulate Mr Zapatero on his surprise election victory in March. Mr Botin's endorsement steadied jittery Spanish markets.

In the Eighties, the Botins were one of the "magnificent seven" Spanish banking families. They agreed over lunch the interest rate they foisted upon customers. Mr Botin shattered this cartel, boycotted the lunches and introduced a high-yield savings account that doubled Santander's customers within a year. This unleashed a sharkfight that ended with Mr Botin circling the waters unchallenged.

In 1995 he rescued Banesto, a bank brought to its knees by fraud, and bought it for the equivalent of more than a billion pounds - a price widely regarded as excessive. But the purchase more than doubled Santander's branches to 4,000 and Banesto recovered within five years.

Then in 1999 Mr Botin orchestrated what he called "a merger of equals" with Banco Central Hispano. Santander took control and BCH's boss, Jose Maria Amusategui, stood down early as co-chairman of BSCH in 2001. A year later BCH's former chief executive, Angel Corcostegui, quit Santander's board. The legacy of that power struggle has come back to haunt Mr Botin. He faces a trial, prompted by two aggrieved shareholders, over a €164m severance package for the two. Santander says it did nothing wrong. Mr Botin consolidated his boardroom triumph by appointing his daughter, Ana Patricia, to head Banesto.

One banking commentator said: "It is difficult to disentangle Santander's corporate culture from that of the Botin family." Being family run probably gives the bank the nimble management structure able to seize opportunities rapidly in Spain's fast-growing, fast-liberalising economy. A Spanish commentator sniped: "Botin likes to gobble a bank every few years to keep going: grow, grow, is his watchword." And Mr Botin's success helps to explain how the family has remained in charge despite its small stake in the bank.

Though owning less than 3 per cent, Mr Botin has installed three of his children on the 21-strong board. Star of the family is Ana Patricia, 43, who is tipped to succeed her father, but there are also his sons Javier and Emilio IV. His nephews Marcelina and Alfonso are directors of the Santander-owned Bankinter.

Such apparent nepotism, unchallenged in Spain, has aroused criticism in Britain. The Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, Vincent Cable, told The Independent yesterday: "Santander has a system of management not compatible with the demanding approach to risk management of British banks, which needs plenty of external challenges from independent directors." Four family members on the board was "extraordinarily large" for such a small shareholding, he said.

The proceeds from ruthless streamlining in Madrid have funded a gleaming new headquarters, Santander City, built for €480m in an out-of-town suburb. Some 4,600 workers have relocated to the 150-hectare complex that contains Europe's largest subsidised creche, five free restaurants, golf courses, tennis courts, gym and pool.

This is the sophisticated multinational face of Santander, but the Botins are keen to keep it a family affair.

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