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Botín’s last supper

The Santander chairman held an informal dinner with journalists in Italy on Friday night

Emilio Botín with F1 racing driver Fernando Alonso in May.
Emilio Botín with F1 racing driver Fernando Alonso in May. EFE

“I tried to shoot a penalty like Messi does – I looked one way, I sent it the other way, but it didn’t go in.” The chairman of Banco Santander arrived at Casa Manzoni, in the center of Milan, at 8.30pm on Friday. Once there he began joking around, and showing off the photos taken during a soccer game that he had played with the chairman of Fiat, John Elkann, and other Italian friends and associates at Juventus’ stadium in Turin. “I’m a little out of sorts,” he admitted, as if to say that at his 79 years of age he was no longer up to a lot of physical exertion, but at the same time showing off an energy and vitality that surprised those present.

Botín had invited a small group of journalists from the main Spanish newspapers – among them EL PAÍS – to a dinner in Milan, coinciding with the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monza last weekend. He arrived in a good mood, with a tan, wearing red pants, a blue sports jacket and a white shirt, without a tie, bearing the red Santander logo.

During the dinner, he was asked about the transition of the bank, and made it very clear that he had no plans to retire, joking that he had the energy to continue for 10 or 20 more years. “I’ve discovered that I can be chairman without having to do any work,” he said. “I have such a good chief executive, and such a fantastic team, that I could disappear for four months and no one would notice.” But despite his jovial tone, it was obvious that he had not, by any means, reduced his workload. On Sunday he flew back to Madrid before the Grand Prix took place to attend a session working on preparations for a shareholders’ meeting next week.

Botín showed off an energy and vitality that surprised those present

The meeting in Italy was supposed to be an informal one, but Botín had prepared a presentation about the situation of the bank, its figures, and its future plans. What was discussed during the dinner was supposed to have been off the record – i.e. not for publication, and certainly not to be attributed to Botín. But the chairman – making his colleagues more than a little nervous – made it clear that he did not care if what he said appeared in print, something the bank has now agreed to in the wake of his death, with the exception of a few figures and personal references.

Botín revealed his concerns about two political situations in Spain: the independence drive in Catalonia, and the rise of new party Podemos. In terms of the former, he expressed hopes that some kind of common ground could be found, and asked whether it would be convenient for business leaders to make public statements about the unity of Spain, and the need for understanding. He said he was afraid that the conflict over the planned November referendum on independence for the northeastern region could become radicalized, and put the stability of the Catalan government at risk.

The Santander chairman explained that it was important for there to be a strong Socialist Party in opposition. As such, the good results garnered by Podemos at the European elections and in opinion polls led him to fear that division and fragmentation of the leftist vote could lead to a situation where Spain became ungovernable.

He made it clear that he had no plans to retire, joking he had the energy to continue for 10 or 20 more years

He also showed how the situation of the bank had improved in the markets, and drew attention to the ranking of the world’s biggest banks in terms of capitalization. His immediate objective, he explained, was to get Santander within the top 10. Getting in the top three, he added, would be more difficult. “If we completed a major operation and bought up a big Italian or German bank, then yes, but we are nowhere near something like that,” he said.

He also wanted to see the bank return to its pre-crisis profit levels – more than €9 billion a year – in the space of four or five years. He proudly explained that Santander had been able to turn a profit every quarter and not cut its dividend, unlike its competitors. And he said he was confident that the bank was going to come out very well of the European bank stress tests, the results of which will be released in October. “Not everyone needs the same capital,” he explained, setting out the bank’s low-risk business model, the quality of its assets and its high revenue levels.

The dinner lasted three hours. Botín took every question without hesitation, drank wine during the meal, and had a small amount of whisky with dessert. No one in attendance could have possibly imagined what would happen four days later.

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