Behind some great men, women who do it better: Two ladies of Spain are flourishing at the top of a construction empire after wresting it from their wayward husbands

UNTIL 1988, Dona Alicia, Marquesa del Real Socorro, and Dona Esther, Marquesa de Casa Penalver, were two very wealthy, beautiful and almost entirely unknown housewives. They frequented the fringe of Madrid's smartest social events but were not members of 'Los Beautiful', the elite whose wealth is flaunted in the pages of Hola].

Their surname, Koplowitz, reminded some that they were the daughters of one of Spain's most dynamic and least conventional businessmen. If they were known at all outside their own circle it was because of their husbands who, by a curious symmetry, were cousins both called Alberto.

'Los Albertos' ran the business empire that their wives had inherited, and in doing so became briefly two of the most famous and feared businessmen in Spain. But they went too far. They launched an assault on the inner sanctum of old Spanish business, Banco Central. Worse, they were unfaithful to their wives, and their wives took their empire away.

As a result, for the past two years, the Koplowitz sisters have been running the largest construction group in Spain.

During the Second World War their father, Ernesto Koplowitz, fled Nazi prosecution of the Jews in Silesia and made his way to Spain. His Spanish was still rudimentary when he realised he could use his native German in a country where few people spoke a second language. He became a representative of the German electronics company AEG (apparently before the end of the war) and started to build up his contacts.

As the 1940s closed, Madrid was still recovering from the Spanish Civil War, which had ended in 1939. It was a time of food shortages, but Koplowitz noticed that people with connections in the local authorities were making money out of the rebuilding of the city. In about 1950, he borrowed money from a German friend to buy Construcciones y Reparaciones, a company that specialised in reconstruction. In 1952, he expanded the capital to Ptas350,000, the equivalent of a few thousand pounds.

As a Jewish immigrant in the hierarchical world of Spanish business, he soon recognised the importance of getting to know the right people in Franco's Spain, and employed as advisers people connected with the government, such as the Duke of Arjillo, the father-in-law of Franco's only daughter.

His zest for business sometimes landed him in trouble. He won the contract to supply Madrid with copper fire hydrants, which were regularly being stolen and sold by impoverished citizens for scrap. He lost it when the city council, which had to pay Koplowitz to replace them, began to suspect him as being one of the thieves.

But this was a minor setback in the building of an efficient company, and when Spain's building boom arrived in the 1960s, the company took off. By 1950 Koplowitz had two children by a Spanish woman, Isabel Amores Herrera, with whom he lived but never married. In that year he fell in love with a beautiful marquess, Esther Romero de Joseu y Armenteros and, though it came as a shock to her family, married her. His one concession to their feelings was to agree to a Catholic ceremony, though he never renounced his Jewish faith.

Dona Esther was the mother of Esther and Alicia. Their father later bought their titles from his wife's family. But he ensured that the children from his first liaison, Ernesto and Isabel Clara, were treated equally, and installed them in a house near his own. For many years both his wife and his former mistress were members of the board of Conycon.

When, in 1962, he fell fatally from his horse at the Club de Campo in Madrid, he was with his son Ernesto as well as Esther and Alicia. (He left 33 per cent of Conycon to Ernesto and Isabel Clara; they later sold it to their half-sisters.)

To take control of the growing crisis that threatened to destroy the company after her husband's death, Dona Esther turned to a man who had long been her admirer and who had himself helped Ernesto with introductions in his first years in business. Though he was Spanish, having grown up on a small farm in Asturia, in other respects Ramon Areces was more like the immigrant Jew than the normal Spanish businessman.

At the age of 15 Areces had left his home for Cuba, then the centre of Spanish-American trade, working as a waiter on the ship to earn his passage. He found a job at a department store and, when he returned to Spain with his savings in 1936, he bought a small tailoring business in the Calle Preciados in Madrid with the unusual name El Corte Ingles. He started to build it up, re- investing profits and keeping borrowings to a minimum, and in due course was able to rival the better-established Galeria Preciados. Even as El Corte Ingles became one of Spain's retail giants, Areces continued living in his small flat on Calle O'Donnell, childless and with none of the trappings of a magnate. When he died in 1989, he left behind him the largest private business in Spain, worth an estimated pounds 3bn.

After Ernesto Koplowitz died, Areces and his team of managers took on the running of Conycon, awarding it contracts to build department stores. He became a member of the family to Esther and Alicia: they called him tio, or uncle. It was Areces who drew up the marriage contracts for the Koplowitz sisters when Alicia married Alberto Cortina, the son of Spain's ambassador in Paris; Esther followed by marrying his older cousin, Alberto Alcocer, his inseparable partner.

It was Areces too who in 1970 told the ambitious cousins that it was time to leave their other business ventures and start taking care of their wives' patrimony. The Albertos joined the board as representatives of the major shareholders. Under the presidency of Areces and with the team from El Corte lngles, they helped to run the construction business. Shortly after Dona Esther died of cancer in 1968, Areces's health too began to decline, but he continued to watch over the affairs of Las Koplowitz.

By the early 1980s Los Albertos were firmly in control and the company was - thanks to its policy of keeping debt down - in a strong position to undercut other contractors and to buy other companies. The first of these was Portland Valderribas, a cement manufacturer. They patiently mopped up small blocks of shares until they had a holding large enough to suggest a deal with the management.

In 1986 they accumulated a 47 per cent stake in FOCSA, Conycon's competitor in Catalonia and a leader in the growing market for waste disposal. Their third, and more controversial purchase was of a medium-size bank, Banco Zaragazano. Areces did not like this diversification into a market unrelated to Conycon's business, but the Albertos said the opportunity was too good to miss.

All these investments were spectacularly successful. Casimiro Garcia-Abadillo and Luis F Fidalgo in their book The Rebellion of the Albertos estimate that these investments cost Conycon Ptas12,000 ( pounds 67m) and by the end of the decade were worth Ptas95,000 ( pounds 527m). Whether they were lucky or smart, no one can be sure.

Up until then the Albertos had been quietly going about their business, attracting little or no attention. But in 1987 they began to be noticed, and it was a short step from there to honorary membership of 'Los Beautiful'. The route they took was via an attack on Banco Central, launched with the backing of the Kuwait Investment Office. This plan, hatched during a frenetic period of banking mergers, at first followed the usual pattern, with the Albertos informing Alfonso Escamez, the wily, patriarchal president of Banco Central, that they and the KIO had 12.25 per cent of his bank. They had no intention of trying to take control, they said, but would like to be represented on the board.

The Albertos aimed to emulate aggressive entrepreneurs such as the Italian Carlo De Benedetti (in whose Spanish holding company they invested) and the slick Mario Conde, who in 1988 became head of Banco Espanol de Credito (Banesto), then the country's third-biggest bank. Some even saw them as the socialist government's antidote to the right-wing Conde. They had been to see the prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and had been told that the socialist government had no objection to their proposed operation.

But it immediately ran into problems. As soon as Ramon Areces heard of it, he resigned from Conycon, along with his team from El Corte Ingles. Then, soon after the Albertos' delegate had taken his seat on Banco Central's board, Escamez launched a spoiling move by announcing that Banesto and Central would be merging, diluting the Albertos' holding.

They were further shocked when the government, which had seemed to be on their side, said it had no objection to the merger. Though it did not go ahead, the Albertos' chances of success had been fatally weakened - not least because at the height of the battle photographs of Alberto Cortina coming out of a Viennese hotel with a marquesa who was not his wife but the now-famous Marta Chavarri, 'Lady Spain 1988', appeared in Spain's abundant gossip magazines.

This undermined the KIO's support. Alicia, who had already separated from her husband, took her first business step, forcing him to resign from Conycon. At first Alberto Alcocer lingered in the position of president and was referred to as the 'strong man' of the company. Then he too was ousted by the sisters, and Esther began divorce proceedings amid rumours of his affair with Margarita Hernandez, a former model and secretary of Javier de la Rosa, the KIO's agent in Spain.

Alicia, who is by nature reserved, had taken several months to recover from the shock of the avalanche of publicity that followed the publication of the photographs.

But with the help and advice of her sister and two close friends, Ana Palacio and Manuel Delgado, both lawyers, she gradually asserted her will over Conycon, of which she and Esther owned 98 per cent. Alberto Alcocer finally left in June 1990.

Areces had made his adopted daughters' marriage contracts unequivocal when it came to who owned what. Alicia, who went through the long legal battle first, was adamant that her former husband should take nothing. His lawyers argued for Ptas18,000m ( pounds 100m) as a compensation for the value he had added to the group during his 19 years of management. For over a year the future of the empire hung in the balance. In the end the Albertos were given Ptas5,600m each ( pounds 31m), which they took mainly in the form of shares in Banco Zaragozano, a holding that keeps them from slipping out of sight in Madrid finance.

Alberto Cortina has married Marta Chavarri, Alberto Alcocer is living with Magarita Hernandez. They have kept their offices at the top of the Torre Picasso, owned by Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas (FCC), a corporation created by a merger of the construction interests now managed by the former wives. The only hint of the ex- husbands' future ambitions has been the purchase of a small Madrid construction company called PACSA. The ex-wives have meanwhile taken charge. The price they have paid has been to lose the privacy they previously enjoyed; the photographers have only recently started to decamp from their doorstep. Alicia seems to be taking the lead, though the company insists that this is simply because she finished with her husband first. She has been the most vocal about the challenge they have taken up. Having survived the last three years, she believes the handicap of limited business experience can be overcome by sheer determination.

The sisters' record since they took over appears to confirm this. As believers in Areces's creed of employee participation, they have started a long programme to foster esprit de corps in the new group.

The reconstruction of their two main companies, FOCSA and Conycon, meant that in a single day thousands of signs were changed on building works across Spain. The vast new airport outside Barcelona, Seville's new railway station of Santa Justa, the Alamillo bridge that crosses the Guadalquivir into Expo, Madrid's new ring road, Barcelona's Olympic port - all these now display signs of Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas.

This is the mark that the sisters, who are both vice-presidents of the new corporation, have taken direct control of their inheritance.

Madrid's brokers are still waiting for the usual roadshow, when the company will explain its new configuration. It has been turned into an entity capitalised at Ptas219,000m ( pounds 1.2bn), pushing Dragados y Construcciones into second place in the construction league. It has sales of Ptas378,000m ( pounds 2.1bn), 31,000 employees and, even after the adventures of the Albertos, an unusually low level of debt for its sector.

The sisters are doing their best to return to the down-to-earth style of their father and Areces, and shun the world of Los Beautiful that the Albertos inhabited.

'Many businessmen now show off like Hollywood stars, in a type of competition to see who has got the biggest yacht, the biggest house, the most modern plane. It's crazy,' Alicia told Vogue.

The rationale for the merger is to form a group big enough to compete with foreign companies which from next year will be able to compete for Spanish public-sector contracts. FCC has already started to move abroad, forming a joint venture with the French group SAE and winning contracts for waste disposal in Britain. One of its contracts is for cleaning up Brighton beach. The stake in Banco Central has been sold and the sisters want no further financial adventures.

Meanwhile, Los Albertos' management of Banco Zaragozano appears to be thoroughly prudent. It seems that they too have decided that the example of Ernesto Koplowitz and Ramon Areces is the one to follow after all.

(Photograph omitted)

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