Botín was no newcomer to the banking world. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all bankers. Botín, who studied Law and Economics at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, simply recognized that the old ways were not going to work in the new economic environment as Spain joined the mainstream of Europe.
In 1993 his bank absorbed Banco Español de Crédito (Banesto), and in 1999 it merged with Banco Central Hispano creating Banco Santander Central Hispano (BSCH), which became Spain's largest bank, of which he was co-president with Central Hispano's José María Amusategui, until Amusategui retired in 2002. In 2004, BSCH acquired the bank Abbey National, making BSCH the secong largest bank in Europe by market cap. In July, 2008 Santander was named the Best Bank in the World by Euromoney magazine.
Santander’s rise to the top has not been without controversy. Botin has been subject to ongoing accusations of unethical behavior and has been brought to court on numerous criminal charges in recent years.
The 1999 merger between Santander and Banco Central Hispano (BCH) was designed to be a “merger of equals” in which the top executives of the two pre-existing firms would share control of the merged entity. Soon after the merger former BCH executives accused Botin of trying to push his own agenda and threatened to take legal action against him. This post-merger squabbling was resolved when BCH executives Jose Amusategui and Angel Corcostegui agreed to accept severance payments, retire and renounce to control to Botin, at an expense to shareholders of €164M. The large termination payouts generated negative press and Botin was eventually brought to trial on criminal charges of “misappropriation of funds” and “irresponsible management.” However, in April, 2005 he was cleared of all charges. The verdict said the €164M retirement payments made to the two former executives were legal, “made as compensation for the services provided to the bank.”
In 2005 the anti-corruption division of the Spanish public prosecutor's office cleared Botin of all charges in a separate case in which he was accused of insider trading.
In January of 2006, a Santander, Spain court dismissed a lawsuit stemming from the cancellation of agreements reached by the SCH board in 2004. In his ruling, the judge said that the case brought by the plaintiffs was 'merely an excuse to vent personal differences between them and the [Banco Santander] chairman. The plaintiffs were ordered to pay Botin’s legal fees. Then, in November, 2006 Botin was brought to trial along with four other company directors for allegedly falsifying official documents and helping clients evade taxes. Spanish press sources reported that although Botin was accused of crimes against the state, the public prosecutor resisted bringing the case to trial. Private prosecution was brought by a prominent shareholder rights group, the Association for the Defense of the Investor and Clients (ADIC), which claimed that the charges against him constituted the "biggest fraud ever committed in Spain.” Botin evaded serving a jail sentence after the case was dismissed, and an appellate court rejected an appeal brought by ADIC.
In the past year Botin’s legal troubles have continued. Most recently Botin’s name has been in the news because of allegations that in 1999, at the time of the BCH merger, he bribed Spain’s economy minister, Rodrigo Rato, in order to seek favor with government officials. Botin and Rato, alongside a group of former associates have been accused of engineering a deal in which Banesto, a Santander subsidiary currently controlled by Botin’s daughter Ana Patricia Botin, purchased a €6M stake in a bankrupt water utility owned by the Rato family. Rato, Botin, and Alfredo Saenz, who was then serving as Banesto’s CEO, are accused of misappropriating funds, breach of fiduciary duty, falsifying documents, and bribery. The case is ongoing.
Botín's daughter, Ana Patricia Botín, is now President of Banesto, and widely viewed as his probable successor as President.
Botín is married to Paloma O'Shea, Marquess of O'Shea, a patron of the arts, and they have six children. Botín's favorite pastimes are hunting, fishing and golf. In 2005 Forbes put Emilio Botín's net worth at $1.7 billion.
On April 25th, 2008, two people died in a plane crash south of Madrid at a property belonging to Emilio Botin. Neither was a member of the banking family. The light aircraft, which was attempting to land at an airstrip on the Botin property known as El Castano, was transporting 441 pounds of hashish.