Sister act keeps wealth and power in family

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The Independent Online
SPANIARDS HAVE been goggling at the latest convulsion in the saga of the glamorous mega-rich Koplowitz sisters, a once inseparable pair who fell out over ownership of the multi-million pound cement empire founded in the 1960s by their Polish immigrant father.

Alicia Koplowitz announced six months ago she was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to sell her 28 per cent share, sending Spain's mighty bankocracy into a frenzied pursuit of buyers.

But the other day sister Esther decided to fork out herself the 136.6bn necessary pesetas (pounds 570m) to keep the firm in the family.

The deal made Alicia, 45, the richest woman in Spain and Esther, 47, the most powerful, and sprayed Dynasty-style photos of both across the covers of every glossy magazine in the country.

Years back they were rated by Harper's and Queen magazine the eighth and ninth richest women in Europe, and Fortune magazine estimated their joint wealth at US2.2bn dollars (pounds 1.34bn), among the world's top 200. Yet neither woman was groomed for the cut-throat world of business and high finance.

Orphaned when their father Ernesto fell fatally from his horse in 1962, the two sisters married at 18 and 20 to two cousins, both called Alberto. The "two Albertos" ran the company ConyCon (Constructions and Contracts) and the sisters stayed at home as dutiful wives and mothers.

The company flourished and the Albertos became rich and powerful. But in 1988, in a twist that a soap-opera scriptwriter might have discarded as too improbable, Alicia was devastated to discover her Alberto (Cortina) carrying on with a marquesa, Marta Chavarri, while Esther found her Alberto (Alcocer) embroiled with a former model, whom he subsequently married. Both affairs were minutely dissected by Spain's voracious gossip magazines.

At a stroke, each sister promptly divorced her husband and in 1990, Esther and Alicia emerged from the drawing room into the boardroom to take over the running of the company - now called FCC (Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas) - themselves. Operating as one, the pair crisply presided over weekly directors' meetings with their trademark elegant suits, smart earrings and decolletages.

Various Spanish and international companies were circling predatorily around Alicia's juicy share at the moment Esther stepped in to prevent the possible break-up of the family firm.

As any convincing family saga would dictate, the deal seems to have been engineered by the solicitous Albertos, eager to protect the interests of their offspring: Esther has three daughters, Alicia three sons, several of whom have important positions in the Koplowitz empire.

Will the two sisters start talking to each other again? Which of Spain's powerful banks will be favoured with the investment of Alicia's windfall fortune? Can Esther prosper on her own in the shark-infested world of Spanish cement? Will the clans of cousins shed blood over their mothers' dazzling inheritance? Stay tuned.

Pulp novelists tempted to appropriate this promising material should be warned that the real-life tale has so far superseded anything you could invent.

Talking of inventions, the former interior minister in Felipe Gonzalez's first socialist government, Jose Barrionuevo, has been protesting his innocence before the Supreme Court this week against accusations of conducting illegal undercover operations against suspected Basque separatists. Mr Barrionuevo faces 23 years in jail, and 11 of his former security chiefs and policemen also face hefty jail sentences.

Mr Barrionuevo's behaviour has been curious. He denies the accusations of organising gangs of hitmen, paying them with state funds and authorising the kidnapping of at least one innocent French businessman, as "pure invention". Nothing surprising in that. But he then says he is prepared to assume all the responsibility, even for things he says did not happen, to let his former colleagues off the hook.

This prompted one cartoonist to portray a judge advising his crumpled plaintiff: "Making a false confession is one thing, but you don't need to swear to the court that you will do so."

Also in trouble with the courts is Francisco Franco, the dictator's grandson. The Civil Guard hauled him up recently for hunting offences: toting a shotgun in the closed season, and hunting without a permit. Caught in the act, it seems Francisco junior threw a punch or two.

What seems to have most riled him was that the official did the natural thing under the circumstances and asked the offender to show his identity card. Mr Franco bears his grandfather's name because his mother, General Franco's daughter, illegally flouted strict regulations governing Spanish surnames in order to perpetuate her father's memory.

The paramilitary plod reported that the heir to the generalissimo who governed with iron discipline for 40 years retorted: "Are you mad or something? I'm off."