Updated, 8:27 p.m. | Emilio Botín, who transformed Banco Santander from a regional, family-controlled bank into one of Europe’s largest financial institutions, died on Tuesday at his home outside Madrid. He was 79.
The bank confirmed the death in a statement on Wednesday, saying Mr. Botín had had a heart attack. Mr. Botín, whose personal wealth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.1 billion, lived in Somosaguas, a wealthy district in Pozuelo de Alarcón, a suburb of Madrid.
Mr. Botín ran Banco Santander for three decades after succeeding his father as executive chairman in 1986, continuing a family dynasty at the bank that began in 1909, when his grandfather became chairman. Both father and grandfather were also named Emilio.
Once in charge, Mr. Botín caught his domestic rivals flat-footed by raising the interest paid on deposits at his bank, a move that greatly increased the market share for what had been a middle-of-the-pack institution with almost no international presence.
Then, in a spate of deal making, Mr. Botín went from one takeover to the next, maintaining a rapid acquisition pace even during the early stages of the financial crisis in 2008. Banco Santander’s assets soared from 20 billion euros in 1998 to 1.1 trillion euros ($1.42 trillion) at the end of last year, which is about the value of Spain’s gross domestic product.
Besides Spain, Santander now has a huge commercial banking presence in Brazil and Britain, as well as a sizable one in the United States after its takeover of Sovereign Bank, based in Philadelphia. (Sovereign changed its name to Santander Bank in 2013 and is now based in Boston.)
Its ability to merge and grow made Santander the envy of banks worldwide, even if the expansion involved some risky bets. Among them was Mr. Botín’s decision to focus on Brazil even after the 2002 election of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist who some feared would turn against banks. Banco Santander now earns about a quarter of its profit from Brazil.
Mr. Botín’s track record allowed him to retain almost unchallenged leadership of the bank, even as its expansion and takeovers diluted his family stake to about 2 percent of the equity.
On Wednesday, the board of Banco Santander unanimously appointed Mr. Botín’s daughter Ana Patricia Botín its next executive chairwoman. Ms. Botín, 53, started as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase in New York before returning to Spain and taking charge of Banesto, a failed Spanish bank that her father took over in a state auction in 1994. More recently, Ms. Botín was based in London, where she was in charge of the bank’s British operations.
In contrast to bankers in other European countries, where they are largely anonymous figures, Mr. Botín wielded an almost cultlike influence in Spain. Although he avoided social events and made relatively few public utterances, his comments made headlines.
For example, his pronouncement that the Spanish economy was on the mend was regarded as a crucial vote of confidence in support of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s re-election bid in 2008.
In an online article on Wednesday in El País, Spain’s leading daily newspaper, Luis de Guindos, Spain’s economy minister, revealed that Mr. Botín’s support had been important in the government’s decision not to negotiate a full government bailout with international creditors in 2012, shortly after Spain was forced to seek European rescue money for Bankia and other suffering savings banks.
Mr. de Guindos wrote that while under intense pressure to opt for a bailout, he received a phone call from Mr. Botín telling him to resist. “You know what you have to do and I will back you,” he quoted Mr. Botín as saying.
As Mr. Botín integrated his various acquisitions, replacing well-known brands like Banesto and Abbey National with that of Santander, he insisted that employees wear the bank’s signature red — ties for men, scarves for women — on public occasions.
Emilio Botín-Sanz de Sautuola y García de los Ríos was born on Oct. 1, 1934, in Santander, a resort town on the northern coast, where his family’s bank was headquartered. (It is now based outside Madrid.) The town was once the summer vacation spot of the Spanish royal family.
By royal decree, Queen Isabel II authorized the bank’s founding in 1857, mainly to help finance maritime trade between Spain and Latin America.
Mr. Botín studied law and then economics before joining the bank at 24 and beginning a rise through the executive ranks. He was in his early 50s when he took over from his father, in 1986, a moment that coincided with Spain’s joining the European Union, which brought in substantial European subsidies to modernize Spain’s economy.
In the last three years, Mr. Botín kept Banco Santander on the sidelines of a Spanish consolidation process in which suffering savings banks that received bailout money were then absorbed by healthier commercial banks.
In 2011, as Spain’s banking crisis was nearing its peak, it was revealed that Mr. Botín and his family were the target of a tax investigation that ended when the family agreed to pay about 200 million euros, now equivalent to about $258 million, in back taxes to avoid tax evasion charges.
While little was disclosed about the settlement, investigators said the family’s undeclared money had originated in a Swiss bank account that Mr. Botín’s father had opened after leaving Spain with part of his wealth in late 1936, after the onset of the Spanish Civil War.
In addition to his daughter Ana Patricia, Mr. Botín’s survivors include his wife, Paloma O’Shea, a classical pianist, patron of the arts and founder of the Queen Sofía College of Music in Madrid; and five other children, Carmen, Emilio, Carolina, Paloma and Francisco Javier. Spanish news media said he had 17 grandchildren. Even after turning his bank into an international behemoth, Mr. Botín remained loyal to the managers who had helped run the family business when it was virtually unknown outside Spain, said Manuel Romera, a finance professor at the IE business school in Madrid.
Mr. Botín’s management team, Mr. Romera said, was “a bit like a Pretorian guard of people whom he has trusted for many years, and who are very Spanish.”