Emilio Botin, head of top European bank Santander and a key character in Spain's financial crisis drama, has died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 79, the company said Wednesday.
Botin was one of the most powerful men in Spain, where critics branded him a symbol of excesses in the banking system which sparked a ruinous property crash -- although his own bank survived it.
He took over from his father as Santander's executive chairman in 1986 and expanded it, fusing it over time with entities such as Britain's Abbey National and others in Latin America.
Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy paid tribute to Botin on Wednesday, calling his bank "a great ambassador for brand Spain".
Botin's sudden death, weeks before his 80th birthday on October 1, "was a surprise and a great blow", Rajoy told reporters at parliament.
Business magazine Forbes estimated the fortune of Botin -- whose surname happens to mean "loot" in Spanish -- at 1.1 billion euros ($1.4 billion).
Leading the international expansion of his bank, named after its hometown in northern Spain, Botin would entertain foreign journalists by joking about his strong Spanish accent when he spoke English.
A patron of science and the arts, he enjoyed the smooth image of a neatly-groomed bald executive in his trademark red tie, known to his managers as "El Presidente".
He kept a collection of art and groves of olive trees at Santander's vast headquarters on the outskirts of Madrid and was a keen golfer and fan of Formula One racing.
- Daughter likely successor -
Botin was long courted by politicians but drew howls of anger from protesters in the street amid the crisis that led Spain close to financial collapse and rattled the eurozone in 2012.
"Botin, the party's over!" demonstrators would yell, as the country's finance sector slid towards a 41-billion-euro ($53 billion) bailout by its eurozone partners.
The biggest bank in the eurozone by capitalisation, currently valued at 91.6 billion euros, Santander itself survived the crisis, but Botin's image suffered.
In 2013 he was summoned to court to testify over Santander's role in the stock market launch of Bankia -- the group whose spectacular collapse and emergency nationalisation precipitated the bailout.
Previously, he had been cleared in 2005 of embezzlement accusations and in 2012 of alleged tax fraud.
The collapse of the property market plunged Spain into a deep economic crisis from which it is only now recovering at the cost of deep reforms, with millions out of work
The bank said in a statement on Wednesday that Botin had died overnight, with a bank spokesman confirming separately that it was due to a heart attack.
Santander said the board would meet later Wednesday to appoint his successor.
Spanish media named the likely successor as his daughter Ana Patricia Botin, 53 -- one of his six children. She is currently in charge of Santander's British subsidiary.
"I hope that the things remaining to be settled will be settled as quickly as possible and that the bank will continue to be a great ambassador for brand Spain and will carry on acting as a great financial entity for these times," Rajoy said.
Santander's shares fell by 1.29 percent to 7.65 euros on the Madrid stock exchange on Wednesday morning after the news of Botin's death. Madrid's Ibex-35 index of leading shares was down by 0.49 percent overall.