High-Risk Mortgages? 'We Don't Have These Strange Things'. the Banker the Credit Crisis Couldn't Touch
Nash, Elizabeth, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Emilio Botin has made Spain's Santander a global player, acquiring Abbey and Alliance & Leicester on the way. But his strategy for growth does not involve being reckless, writes Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
Emilio Botin sees no crisis. Financial turmoil may be engulfing lesser players but the chairman of Santander, the biggest bank in the eurozone and seventh in the world by market value, sees only triumph and opportunity.
The energy of this 73-year-old patriarch of Spain's greatest banking dynasty shows no sign of flagging as he pursues his ambition to become the world's top banker. Having picked up Alliance & Leicester for a song this month, complementing the acquisition four years ago of Abbey, he plans further expansion in Britain. But he's in no hurry. He might acquire another institution, a spokesman said recently, or develop what he's got, depending on circumstances.
You can explain the rise of Emilio Botin partly in terms of the acumen of a man with nimble reflexes, razor-sharp timing and mastery of the world in which he works. But it is also about the history of Spain.
The first Emilio started a modest operation in 1857 to finance trade between Spain's northern Cantabrian port of Santander and Latin America. His son Emilio II made the little local bank a financier for Spanish industry during General Franco's dictatorship.
His breakthrough came in the 1950s when the cash-strapped Barcelona Football Club was looking to replace its tatty little stadium. He agreed to provide 95 per cent of the funds if the club's 30,000 members opened accounts in his bank. Barcelona built Europe's biggest stadium and Banco Santander penetrated Catalonia, Spain's richest region.
Despite profiting under Franco's rule, the Botins swiftly adapted when the dictator died in 1975. Within a year, the present chairman's father announced he favoured legalising the Communist Party - a controversial decision that nevertheless proved crucial in consolidating Spain's peaceful transition to democracy.
Today's patriarch, who became chairman in 1986 when his father stepped down aged 84, stays close to political power. He introduced Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister from 1996 to 1994, to City financiers in London when the Conservative leader was barely known. But when Aznar's government was defeated by the Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Botin was the first to congratulate Zapatero on his surprise victory. The endorsement steadied jittery Spanish markets.
Emilio III transformed the family firm into a global operator. He "lives for banking", he says, quoting his father: "The ambition is to be second to none". He works Sundays and holidays, shows no sign of retiring and tests loyalty by calling snap meetings on Christmas Eve.
In 1988 he chummed up with another little regional bank on its country's northern fringes, Royal Bank of Scotland, gaining a seat on the board and a window on the world.
Spain lost the knack of trade centuries ago when its seaborne empire collapsed, and it never experienced a manufacturing revolution. It produced neither a mercantile elite nor an industrial bourgeoisie. Entrepreneurial spirit was channelled into banking, which became the road to wealth and power.
Spain's brightest youngsters went into banking rather than commerce or industry. A clutch of Spanish business schools, ranked among Europe's finest, produce a sophisticated executive class - a steely bankocracy of international standing.
Spanish bankers are mostly cautious and austere. They display none of the buccaneering recklessness of some international counterparts that are now suffering in the credit crunch. The Botins are rich, with a fortune put at $1.1bn (around 550m), but frugal and philanthropic. They don't appear in the Spanish version of Hello! and attend social gatherings only to endow a university or science park. …