Ana Botín: the most powerful woman in finance

Ana Botín may have followed in her father’s footsteps by taking the reins at Santander Group, but she’s made it clear that she’s forging her own path

 
Botin delivers a speech during Santander's 2014 extraordinary general shareholders' meeting in the Spanish city Santander  

It would not be a stretch to suggest that Ana Botín, Executive Chairman of Santander Group, is the most powerful woman in banking. When she took the helm in 2014, she was the first woman to chair a global financial organisation and one of only six women to lead a Fortune Global 100 company. A year later, she had a net worth of $150m, and last year she topped a Fortune list of the most powerful women in the world outside the US.

And of course, heading up a global behemoth is no mean feat. Santander now has a market capitalisation of $89.4bn and more than 100 million customers worldwide. It is also ranked number 33 on the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s biggest public companies.

As the fourth generation of the Botín family to lead the Spanish bank, however, suggestions of nepotism have at times clouded her achievements, undermining the steely reserve with which she now leads the global business and with which she helped turn the bank’s UK arm, once named ‘Britain’s worst bank’ in multiple customer satisfaction surveys, into a success story.

At times mirroring her father’s business strategies and at others moving deliberately away from them, Botín has had to forge her own path, embracing technology, supporting SMEs, resisting all but the most essential acquisitions, and shaking up the board to bring in fresh talent. And so far, this approach seems to be paying off: Santander’s global profits hit $4.2bn in the first half of 2017, marking a 24 percent year-on-year increase prior to the group’s acquisition of Banco Popular.

In particular, the formerly struggling Brazilian market has finally come up trumps, contributing 26 percent of Santander’s overall profits in 2016. Other subsidiaries are bearing fruit too, helped along by an aggressive cost-cutting strategy that has seen the bank reap rewards despite ongoing tough market conditions.

How Botín will continue to manage all of this as future challenges arise remains to be seen, but she’s in as good a position as anyone could hope for right now.

Billionaire background
Despite her family heritage, Botín has strenuously rejected the notion that her position was handed to her on a plate. She famously stated in a Time interview in 2004: “I started at the bottom. Nobody has given me anything.”

A quick glance at her family tree and CV, however, would suggest that her current position was no accident; as the only one of six siblings to go into banking, it’s not a stretch to say that she was chosen early on as heir to the Botín dynasty’s throne.

That said, she still had a lot to live up to. Her father, Emilio, built himself a formidable reputation as no-nonsense banker who transformed a small, regional name into an international giant, growing the company aggressively through a series of acquisitions which saw franchises in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, the UK, Poland, the US and Germany all open in the space of two decades.

His strategy of buying and selling was undeniably the right one for the time; in 2007 he acquired Italian lender Banca Antonveneta, then secured a huge profit by agreeing to sell it on before the purchase had even been completed.

Botín’s mother, the Marquise of O’Shea, wasn’t without ambition either: she is a renowned pianist, a patron of the arts and the founder of one of Spain’s biggest music schools. Botín grew up in this environment of success and achievement, attending schools in Spain, France, Austria and the UK, and learning five languages in the process, almost as if she was being primed for the front line of international business.

But banking wasn’t always Botín’s ambition; she stated in an interview in 2014 that she had originally wanted to be a journalist. “I used to write articles at university about politics,” she told The Telegraph, two months before taking control of Santander. “I never thought I’d stay in banking forever – even now I might not. But I thought it would give a good perspective on all sectors and a broad view of the economy.”

In any case, her career path certainly seemed to set her up more for banking than writing. She studied economics at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, before moving on to Harvard and then undertaking an eight-year stint on the trading floor at JP Morgan in New York. Botín left the US in 1988, returning to Santander as a debt trader, then becoming Senior Executive Vice President in 1992.

1857

Santander was founded

188,492

Employees (2017)

3,928,950

Shareholders

12,235

Branches

$51.8bn

Revenue 2016

$26.9bn

Operating profit 2016

For the next six years, she led the bank’s expansion in Latin America, attempting to launch investment banking in the region – an area her father had generally avoided, preferring traditional retail banking – but the endeavour proved unsuccessful.

This period of Botín’s career is usually viewed negatively, but a few analysts see it differently. Among them is Mauro Guillén, Professor of Management at the Wharton School and author of a book on Santander.

“Most people are very critical about that period, but I give her a bit of credit because, although it didn’t make much money, it enabled the bank to gather research on all the different banks in the region,” he explained. “That laid the groundwork for a series of acquisitions in Latin America over the following five to seven years.”

Successful or not, in 1999 Botín took a break from banking and left Santander to found a private equity investment fund, Suala Capital, alongside a web consultancy called Razona. She has described this as one of the most rewarding periods of her career, in spite of how tough it was.

Crucially, the experience gave Botín a glimpse into the world of start-ups, and seems to have since shaped her future banking strategy, which has largely focused on technology and SMEs.

“Anybody who has run a small company has gone through such a hard time,” she told The Telegraph in 2012. “I have always built businesses – even back at Santander in the early 1990s I was helping to build the Latin American bank, creating new groups of people, hiring people – but [running my own business] was a totally different story.”

In 2002, Razona was bought out and Botín returned to banking, moving to Madrid to chair Banesto, a medium-sized Spanish lender that Santander had just taken over.

UK turnaround
Jumping forward eight years, in 2010 Botín was sent to London to take the reins at Santander UK, following António Horta-Osório’s departure to head up Lloyds Banking Group. This period proved to be the making of Botín, as she transformed the struggling UK arm into a profitable, well-managed business with 860 branches, 20,000 staff and 14 million customers. By the time she left in 2014, Santander had also grown into the UK’s second-biggest mortgage lender.

However, according to Guillén, much of this progress was already in motion when Botín arrived in the UK, and her real goal was to network. “She didn’t go there to run the bank. I’ve always said she was put in that position in London so that she could get acquainted with all of the owners of the bank. She’d been in New York, then Latin America, then Madrid running Banesco – the one thing she lacked was experience in London.”

But leading the bank in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis in almost a century couldn’t have been an easy job, no matter what groundwork had been laid before Botín’s arrival. At that time, Santander UK was an amalgamation of three poorly performing building societies: Abbey National, which had been bought under Emilio for £9bn ($11.8bn) in 2004; Alliance & Leicester; and Bradford & Bingley.

Botín grew up in an environment of success and achievement, almost as if she was being primed for the front line of international business

“They had way too many systems and they had physical customers with different ID numbers across all of these different companies, so they had to consolidate everything into one system,” said Guillén.

The product offering was limited, the bank was suffering from both tightened regulation and a tough economic climate, and customer complaints were flooding in. To cap it all off, an annual customer satisfaction survey by JD Power & Associates named Santander the worst performing UK bank for three years in a row.

Botín was fully aware of the challenge she faced. “The strength of the Santander model is having a strong relationship with retail customers, and we don’t have that yet in the UK,” she told Fortune in 2012. She immediately set about reforming the bank’s management, shaking up at least two thirds of the top 120 staff members and widening the customer base.

Under her leadership, the bank pledged to offer bonus interest beyond the first year on its Santander 123 account, and launched an advertising campaign starring UK sporting icons Jenson Button, Jessica Ennis and Rory McIlroy to promote it. The campaign proved a success, with 2.7 million Santander 123 accounts opened by 2014.

The first couple of years brought further problems, however, with profits tumbling 40 percent in 2011 on the back of a £538m ($704m) charge over the mis-selling of payment protection insurance (see Fig 1). An anticipated £20bn ($26bn) IPO was halted in response. The following year, Botín’s plan to purchase 316 Royal Bank of Scotland branches, which had been fraught with delays, fell through, dealing her leadership a heavy blow.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. In spite of the tough climate, the bank was consistently able to pay a shareholder dividend and, in 2011, Botín took home a pay packet of £2.2m ($2.88m), putting her among the best-paid female executives in the country. Customer complaints were also gradually declining – a clear sign that she must have been doing something right.

Tech approach
Arguably Botín’s biggest contribution while in the UK was her focus on technology, which was most apparent in her support for start-ups. Her biggest project was the Breakthrough programme, a $392m capital fund to help small firms develop into medium-sized enterprises. The strategy also included trade missions in New York and Brazil, as well as a programme to assist companies in recruiting talented staff from universities.

As the focus shifted to supporting businesses, the bank began cutting back on mortgage lending, despite the fact that SME lending required five times the amount of equity.

In any case, the approach, designed to rebalance Santander’s books, appeared to be working. By 2014, Botín had grown the corporate business by 80 percent a year for four straight years. She then further increased the stakes by launching a start-up incubator, offering free office space and funding for eight projects at Santander’s Liverpool base.

When Emilio died in 2014, Botín left Santander UK to take over the entire group. The move was well received, with her performance in the UK having laid to rest any lingering doubts about her ability.

“Ms Botín positioned Santander as a major provider of lending for small and medium-sized UK businesses, complementing the UK Government’s wider efforts to boost overseas trade,” said Simon Manley, UK Ambassador to Spain, in a 2015 interview with The Telegraph. She was awarded a damehood for her achievements, named a UK business ambassador, and, in July 2015, given a place in the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group.

Into the fire
With this wealth of experience and achievement, Botín stepped into the global breach. According to Guillén, the move was obvious. “It was clear she was going to take over,” he said. “The reason I say this is that the board of directors is dominated by people who wanted that outcome, and it still is, although a number of retirements are coming up now.”

Once again, Botín was thrown in at the deep end, with a host of challenges to contend with. Santander was still recovering from the crisis, compounded by a Spanish housing bust which had occurred two years earlier and meant 28.6 percent of the bank’s $77bn real estate loans in the country had been rendered non-performing.

But, true to her past, she managed to achieve positive results, not least with the Spanish subsidiary, which reported a net profit of €6.2bn ($7.43bn) in 2016. This marked a four percent increase year-on-year, and its best results since 2010. Its customer base increased by 1.4 million to reach 15.2 million, and shareholders were rewarded too, with dividends rising eight percent to €0.17 ($0.20) per share.

Mirroring her strategy with the UK arm, Botín didn’t hesitate to bring about changes at the top table. She replaced CEO Javier Marín with then-CFO José Antonio Álvarez, and appointed José García Cantera from Banesto as the new CFO. She also introduced three new directors, “putting her stamp on the business and showing what she wants to do,” a Madrid-based analyst told the BBC.

It was a strategic move, according to Guillén. “She moved in with her own team – she got rid of some people that she didn’t want there, but she kept enough people from her father’s team,” he said. “That was very smart, enabling her to have stability on the board of directors.”

Guillén believes she’s been taking the right steps in other ways too, moving away from her father’s strategy of growth by acquisition and towards a more organic type of development. “She’s still paying a dividend and she’s doing the kinds of things that need to be done – cutting costs, shutting branches, and selling assets. But she has clearly stated that gross figures are no longer the company’s focus”, he explained.

“The other thing is dealing with non-performing loans, especially in Spain, and I think she’s done a relatively good job. Look at the multiples of the book value that they’re trading at: it used to be around 50-60 percent, now they’re at twice that level. It’s still not enough, but it’s a huge improvement.”

Botín doesn’t insist on being referred to as ‘el presidente’ as her father did, and she doesn’t hold meetings at the extravagant complex he created

As with her UK tenure, Botín has shown an ongoing commitment to technology too, with a dedicated fintech fund – Santander InnoVentures – launched in 2014. The $100m fund was increased to $200m in 2016, and now has 15 firms under its belt, including several blockchain start-ups and new additions focused on analysing consumer behaviour.

These approaches clearly set her apart from her father, and she differs on a personal level too. People within the bank have pointed out a difference in taste: Botín doesn’t insist on being referred to as ‘el presidente’ as Emilio did, and she doesn’t tend to hold meetings at the extravagant Ciudad Grupo Santander complex that he created, instead opting for the bank’s slightly less ornate Madrid office.

Popular values
In June this year, it was announced that Santander would be buying struggling Spanish firm Banco Popular. Bought for the peppercorn sum of €1 ($1.20), the acquisition sparked a wave of comparisons between Botín and her father. Davide Serra of hedge fund Algebris told the Financial Times it was “the best deal in Santander’s history”, while former US regulator and board member Sheila Bair declared: “Emilio would be smiling broadly.”

Indeed he might, but the deal is not actually as classic an Emilio move as the media has suggested. Where he splashed the cash in order to push growth, his daughter’s goals are somewhat different.

Indeed, according Guillén, the Banco Popular deal is more of a political move than a financial one: “I think essentially they’ve done it as a favour to Europe and the Spanish Government,” he said. “I don’t think they really wanted to do it, but I guess the assumption was that the largest bank should take over. I’m sure the European Central Bank and Spanish Government will thank her for a long time to come. Politics plays a role in all of this – it’s not just finance.”

Where things go from here remains to be seen. What’s certain is that there are significant challenges ahead for the entire banking industry. Major players will have to juggle older customers who still demand physical branches and a younger crowd demanding digital-first banking.

They’ll have to deal with fewer mortgages on the back of a generation forced to rent, while guiding the UK arm through the complexities of Brexit. On top of all this, Botín will have to continue filling her father’s substantial shoes, sustaining what is a family empire in all but name, while dealing with an underperforming US arm.

That said, a powerful mix of past success, a keenness for embracing innovation, and a willingness to face challenges head-on suggests that Botín will rise to the challenge and guide Santander into the future. It’s going so well right now that if she does, the bank will be thanking her for decades to come.