SANTANDER, SPAIN - MARCH 27:  President of the Spanish bank Banco Santander, Emilio Botin speaks during  the  Botin Foundation Annual Report at the Hotel Real on March 27, 2014 in Santander, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Emilio Botín, who died on Tuesday night, was one of the world’s most respected financiers and a man often characterised as the most powerful in Spain.

Born in 1934 in the town of Santander in northern Spain, Botín was always destined to be a banker, hailing from a line of financiers. After a Jesuit education, and studying for degrees in law and economics, Botín began a long apprenticeship at Banco Santander, where his father was chairman.

Botín did not need to work. His aristocratic family was already one of the wealthiest in Spain (his full title was Emilio Botín-Sanz de Sautuola y García de los Ríos, Marquis Consort of O’Shea).

But the 23-year-old showed an early hunger to excel at banking. His early training prepared the ground for his later success. He gained practical experience as a credit analyst, but also became a consummate networker, with the bank’s corporate relationships granting him board seats across Spain.

Botín had to wait until he was 52 for his apprenticeship to finish, taking over from his father as chairman in 1986.

He died only a month short of his 80th birthday – but three years short of his own personal target for running Santander, the bank he built from a midsized local lender into one of the world’s biggest. Friends say he always had it in mind to run the lender at least as long as his father, who was 83 when he handed over the reins.

He is survived by his wife Paloma and their six children.

During his 28 years in charge of Santander, he navigated through two significant economic disasters: the 1970s Spanish banking crisis and more recently the 2008 crash and the eurozone turmoil that followed.

As the hands-on patriarch of Spain’s biggest bank, Botín had longstanding relationships across Spanish companies and among the country’s political elite, as well as the profile and mystique to ensure him vast influence.

The record is not unblemished. Santander’s performance in its domestic market suffered badly amid the Spanish housing crisis and there were a handful of legal scandals. But Botín’s international expansion helped save the bank from trouble, with a succession of canny deals struck across Latin America and Europe.

There was ruthlessness in the Botín mix, too. When he struck his first meaningful merger deal in 1999, he ousted his rivals for the top job with a mix of aggression and cash pay-offs. A decade later, as part of the biggest bank takeover, Santander came away with the prized part of the old ABN Amro franchise in Brazil, while its partners on the deal, Royal Bank of Scotland and Fortis ended up on their knees. Underlining his shrewdness, Botín “flipped” ABN’s Italian subsidiary to another buyer, making a €2.4bn profit in a matter of days.

Banking was always Botín’s first obsession. But he had others: safari trips to Tanzania, where he would hunt big game; and Formula One, where he was a close ally and friend of Spanish driver Fernando Alonso.

In recent years he became very health-conscious. He exercised religiously, with early morning walks near his home to the northwest of Madrid, and rounds of golf. He also had an increasingly picky diet, involving a lot of egg whites and fruit, boosted with a regular stream of Coca-Cola.

He was active and full of energy to the end, according to friends. But however ardent his ambition to run Santander for several more years, mortality finally caught up with Emilio Botín.

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