October 20, 2020

Goirigolzarri, the ‘bankero’ who could not lead BBVA but will preside over the largest bank in Spain

“I have a great experience in mergers and I have lived through everything, mergers that have gone well and others that have gone less well.” This is how José Ignacio Goirigolzarri (Bilbao, 1954) summarized a part of his career at his first press conference since it became known that he will be the new Chairman of CaixaBank. The banker adds another milestone to his long career in the financial sector since the late 1970s that has led him to be Francisco González’s right-hand man at BBVA, take the reins of a Bankia on the precipice, and now, to preside over the largest Spanish entity after the merger announced this week.

From Fainé to the FROB: who's who in the merger of Bankia and CaixaBank

From Fainé to the FROB: who’s who in the merger of Bankia and CaixaBank

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Goirigolzarri is one of the last survivors of the banking upper class before the financial crisis. A student at the Jesuit University of Bilbao Deusto, he began his career at Banco Bilbao and had already experienced its merger with that of Vizcaya closely. He was the CEO of BBV when the merger with Argentaria came about, promoted by Francisco González, and survived the departure of the former managers of the Biscayan entity. Together with González, he was promoted in the BBVA bank to be the number two CEO of the entity, since 2001.

The paths of both parted and not in the best of ways. Goirigolzarri decided to leave the bank in 2009 with the incipient financial crisis, when the president of the entity, today pointed out by the Villarejo case, tried to extend his retirement age, which closed the door to his possible promotion to the position of chief executive of BBVA . Before that, he had led the development of BBVA in Latin America. He left the multinational that he had helped to build due to discrepancies with the one who had been his supporter, leaving the position to Ángel Cano, but he took with him more than 68 million euros of pension.

Little more than a decade later, that BBVA president has fallen into ostracism investigated by the courts while his ward has before him the presidency of the largest bank in Spain and one of the most important in Europe. Although he assumes that his role will not be one of leadership, since his presidency does not include the executive powers of the bank, which he did have in the nationalized entity that now disappears. “The chief executive had to be him, I want to make it clear,” he said this Friday, pointing to Gonzalo Cortázar, the CEO of CaixaBank.

After leaving BBVA, he dedicated himself to different activities for a few years, while continuing to look from the sidelines at the financial sector in which he had developed his career during the previous two decades. Proof of this was his facet as a blogger. On his personal page during this time he wrote dozens of texts where he expressed his concerns about the globalization process, analyzed the role of the ECB at the beginning of the 2008 crisis, or gave a sample of his liberal economic training, defending higher levels of freedom for entrepreneurs as a generator of wealth.

But Goirigolzarri’s career on the bench was not over. In May 2012 the hot potato from Bankia arrived. He was chosen to replace Rodrigo while in an entity on the verge of financial rescue. It was reported at the time that the former director of the IMF had been his supporter, but the truth is that his appointment came precipitously after an intense weekend with two dinners between the Minister of Economy, Luis de Guindos, Rato, the president of the Santander, Emilio Botín; that of BBVA, Francisco González; and that of La Caixa, Isidro Fainé. There the future of Bankia and the plans to clean it up were discussed, but the versions of those present do not coincide on whether Rato was forced to resign.

Accompanied by José Sevilla and a new management team, Goirigolzarri, supported by a billion-dollar rescue, managed to bring forward the heir to Caja Madrid and seven other savings banks. One of his first decisions was to maintain the brand despite the fact that its image was clearly damaged, especially associated with campaigns like the one a few months before in which it was proposed to citizens to ‘become bankers’ by buying shares in a disastrous IPO that has judicialized finish. “In 2012 it was a touched brand and thanks to the efforts of all the people it has been revitalized. It is a case for Harvard,” he said proudly this Friday.

Strong defender of the rescue and privatization

He was the one in charge of ending up requesting the rescue before the unviable situation of the group. Goirigolzarri has since remained at the head of a nationalized bank without ever presenting himself as the president of a public company. In fact, he has been a firm defender of the Bankia rescue operation, and in turn, of its privatization. “We were not talking about saving shareholders or bankers, we were talking about saving depositors,” he said again this Friday. Asked if the merger improved the possibility of returning the aid, he defended: “It is a question that implicitly implies that if all are not recovered it is a bad decision, and I do not agree with that.”

In a shareholders meeting, where 60% of the representation corresponded to the State, the banker assured that it was necessary to privatize to prevent the group from ending “in mediocrity and rescue”. And he went further by claiming that it should not serve as an “instrument of economic policy.” He made these statements in 2019, a month before the elections in which Podemos was betting on keeping Bankia as a public bank. In the program of the electoral repetition, which ended in a coalition between PSOE and United We Can, the formation of Pablo Iglesias advocated changing him from the president of Bankia to someone with an interest in building a public bank. The proposal to maintain the public entity in the negotiation of the Government agreement did not prosper and now Goirigolzarri will look to a shareholders’ meeting, if the merger is finally approved, where the first shareholder will no longer be the State, but the La Caixa Foundation, chaired by Fainé.

With him Bankia disappears nine years after its creation. He was responsible for taking the reins of the group at its worst, just a year after its birth, but will also be in charge of closing the last (for now) large nationalized financial institution. “The disappearance of Bankia makes me very sad,” he said at the press conference, “but it still has very negative connotations from the past.”


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