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The departure of Alfredo Saenz settles the first of Santander's succession sagas. Spain's biggest bank is replacing its 70-year-old chief executive officer with an insider 24 years his junior, Javier Marin. But the real interest lies in what the changing of the guard says about who replaces Santander's 78-year-old executive chairman, Emilio Botin, when he finally steps down.
Mr. Saenz concludes his long Santander career with more haste than he probably would have liked. His exit follows a long-running legal dispute that saw him convicted in 2009 of making false accusations against debtors in the 1990s when he ran Banesto, which Santander now owns. Although he was pardoned in 2011, the risk was that the Bank of Spain might have deemed him not "fit and proper." Hefty accumulated pension rights of €88-million ($116.6-million) should soften the blow.
Mr. Marin's elevation may make it look like Ana Botin, Emilio's daughter and head of Santander's U.K. operations, is being sidelined. But the Santander CEO job is what most banks would call a chief operating officer because Emilio Botin serves as de facto chairman and chief executive. Madrid sources have long assumed, and still assume, that Ana is being groomed for the top job.
Still, the changes are significant. Some students of Santander kremlinology think Emilio Botin will stay until he is 83, the age his own father was when he stepped down. Mr. Marin's appointment might make that more likely. Mr. Marin is close to Botin and could allow the executive chairman to take an even more active role in running the bank than he did with the more independent-minded Mr. Saenz at his side.
Such an extension, meanwhile, could in turn be good for Ana Botin. Although the Santander board is packed with Botin supporters, it would look much better if they could hand the bank over to her following a successful listing of the U.K. subsidiary she runs. With the U.K. economy in the doldrums this looks some way off. By 2018, however, Ana's record may have achieved the required sheen.