Andrea Orcel: ‘I’m not a person that lets things go’
If Andrea Orcel’s life story had stuck to the script, he would not be here having lunch with the FT. At least not today. He should have been strutting the stage at Santander’s strategy day — which is taking place just a few miles away in the City — having embarked on a “once in a lifetime” opportunity as the chief executive of one of Europe’s largest banks.
Instead, the 55-year old was very publicly rejected by Santander and finds himself unemployed for the first time in more than three decades. The Spanish bank rescinded his job offer in January, after it apparently concluded it could not justify paying him a sign-on package said to be worth €50m at a time of renewed anger over banker pay. Now Orcel is readying for a legal fight against his erstwhile would-be employer.
We meet at Lurra, a Basque restaurant in Marylebone. Given that region’s long fight for independence from Spain, I can only wonder if his choice of venue is supposed to make a point. I am seated by the window at a table bathed in piercing sunlight. Orcel joins 15 minutes later, accompanied by an 18-month-old husky puppy named Flash.
“I’m sorry,” he says with a wide, apologetic grin. “The dogwalker let me down.” He strikes up a conversation in fluent Spanish with the waiter and it becomes clear they know each other well. Perhaps the restaurant was not chosen simply to thumb his nose at Santander. A bowl of water and a bone are provided for Flash, who takes his place at our feet.
Orcel is smiling and relaxed, in a smart blue blazer, an unusual high-collared pinstriped shirt, and red trousers — a far cry from the man I first met at his home in February. Then, he was struggling to come to terms with his downfall. But when I ask him to recount the days after Santander’s U-turn, an element of shocked disbelief returns.
“The first reaction was surprise, sadness, massive disappointment; I don’t know if the word ‘disappointment’ in English is really enough to portray the situation,” he says in an Italian accent that is still thick despite first moving to London in 1988. “I was saying, ‘What? Oh my God. This is a black swan, this has never happened before.’ ”
By the time Santander broke the news to Orcel, he had quit as head of UBS’s investment bank. His eight-year-old daughter had passed the entrance exam for her new school in Madrid; he and his wife were days from making a large downpayment on a house in Spain. He was on gardening leave from UBS at the time, but mentally he had started the new job. “It was keeping me up at night. What are the things I should do? What are the mistakes I shouldn’t make? Who are the people I should speak to?”
This is clearly uncomfortable ground. He gestures to the waiter. “Do you want to order?” he asks. “I’m just mindful of your time.” I ask what he recommends. “I’m more of a meat person. It’s very boring, but if you don’t dislike meat, then perhaps we can share a steak?” We opt for a side order of tomato salad, but when the waiter suggests a starter of pan con tomate, Orcel demurs. I propose a glass of red wine and am pleasantly surprised when he agrees.
We return to Santander. Although Orcel was well-known in banking circles, the coverage brought with it new recognition. The men he worked out with at a local gym suddenly recognised him; at school, his daughter’s classmates quizzed her on what had happened.
“I don’t know in what context, but somebody made a comment,” he says. “We always forget that children are like sponges and understand a lot more than we think. She came home and said, ‘Papa, what’s going on?’ ” She had not wanted to move schools and was overjoyed to learn she would not have to. “You see, there’s always a silver lining in this stuff,” he says.
The fascination with his rejection has something of the soap opera about it, mainly because Santander has been controlled by the same family for more than 100 years. Ana Botín, the current executive chair, took the helm when her father, Emilio, died in 2014, continuing a dynasty that started when her great-grandfather became chairman in 1909.
If the appointment of Orcel represented a break with tradition, it was only a partial one. Although he was technically an outsider, he had been Emilio Botín’s foremost adviser during two decades of megadeals that turned the bank from a domestic Spanish lender into a global financial force.
“I had a special relationship with Emilio. I think he taught me a lot of things. He understood that by trusting me, the level of pressure that I would feel not to fail — to do the best I could — was enormous. I was fortunate I never failed him.” I ask what Emilio would make of all this if he were still here today. “I don’t like speculation,” he says.
Before I can press further, our food arrives: a huge sliced steak sizzling on a cast-iron platter and a bowl of peeled, marinated plum tomatoes. The steak is of the Txuleta variety — from mature dairy cattle — and is glistening with globules of rendered fat.
I am struck by how well-behaved the puppy is: I have not seen many dogs who can resist the aroma of cooked beef, but the food’s arrival barely registers. At times, I forget about him entirely, only reminded of his presence by the occasional clack of his teeth against his bone.
As Orcel spears a chunk of meat and starts chewing, he steers the conversation to the benefits of his enforced career break. He has found more time to read — as evidenced by the Daunt Books tote bag slung over his shoulder on arrival — and is spending more time with his daughter, who was born around a year before he took up the gruelling job running UBS’s investment bank.
“The disadvantage of being so driven is that you’re making some brutal choices that you’re not fully aware of, vis-à-vis your family, your friends and other parts of life that you prioritise out,” he says. “I always thought I was a good father because every Friday I would take her to school, I would go to her plays. But then you realise that, yes, you’re there, but your brain is going 1,000 miles an hour on what you’re going to do next. And children can feel that.”
Since he stopped turning up for work at UBS six months ago, he has taught his daughter how to ride a bike — it was “overdue” — and the ordeal has brought him closer to his wife, Clara. I suggest his presence at home might have put pressure on his marriage after so many years of long days. He picks his words carefully. “The first month was interesting. In a way we went from being together only on weekends, to being together most of the time. At a difficult time. With a lot of questions. But I think, if possible, our relationship has strengthened because we’re facing this situation together.”
Orcel is charm personified. He maintains eye contact, and, after some initial nervousness, answers questions with affable ease. But halfway through our meal, I confess something is bugging me. During my brief time as the FT’s banking editor, I have been struck by the number of people in the industry who have told me, often unprompted, how much they dislike Orcel. Is there another side to him — demanding and difficult — not on display today?
“I would not generalise what a few people with an objective say about me; I’ll leave it at that,” he says, his smile fleetingly replaced by irritation. Except I won’t let him leave it there. Surely there must be a reason for the strength of ill-feeling among his former colleagues? “Am I perfect? No, I’m not perfect.” He lists a series of supposed character flaws that sound more like positive traits. “I’m intense, I love my job, I give it my all, I’m passionate.”
One theory about Orcel is that he demands the same commitment from those who might not have his stamina. At first, he bats the allegation away, before articulating a theory of management that suggests there might be something in it. He recounts reading Grit, a book by Angela Duckworth. “I didn’t even need to finish it because I felt I believed so much of what she was saying.” The central thesis is that the secret to success is not raw talent, but rather a blend of passion and persistence.
“Life is about choices, some people will give it 15 hours a day, and some people will give it eight or nine hours a day. But I don’t think you can have people giving it three hours, not in this industry. For me, cruising is taking advantage of the other people who are doing the rowing. That kind of behaviour in a team sport — and investment banking is a team sport — is unacceptable.”
Orcel insists there is no need for soul-searching or a changing of his ways. “I always remember something my father said when I was growing up: ‘Every morning when you watch that face in the mirror while you’re shaving, there is no hiding. Can you live with what you’re seeing? Because you’re the best judge of yourself’. Everything I’ve always done is with that in mind.”
The waiter interrupts to hand Orcel something in a brown paper bag. I wrongly assume it’s a bottle of the excellent wine we are drinking: a rich Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero region that goes perfectly with the meat. Instead, it is a bone for Flash to enjoy later. “This is where I get my stash,” grins Orcel.
The official reason for Santander’s rejection of Orcel was that it could not risk the opprobrium that might have ensued if it had paid him such a large sign-on package. The payment was supposed to replace deferred compensation he had built up at UBS, which he would have forfeited by working for a rival. It was, by anyone’s standards, a huge sum, I point out, before asking a direct question: are bankers paid too much?
He says he is asked this all the time. So it is surprising that he struggles to find an answer. First, he suggests bankers are not paid so much when compared to the rewards in Silicon Valley. Then he points out they work “incredible hours”. And what about all the other high-paid professions? “Is it right that a movie star is paid that kind of money or not?” Finally, he settles on an explanation, but he does not seem so convinced: “I guess there is a well-functioning market, and that the market compensates in this way.”
Orcel says he has worked hard to get where he is. “I do come from a middle-class family, I climbed all the steps.” Born in Rome in 1963 to a father who ran a leasing finance company and a mother who worked for the United Nations, Orcel was educated at the Lycée français Chateaubriand and the University of Rome.
His unusual schooling — which saw him switch from the highly structured French system to a more laid-back Italian university — was the product of a deal struck between his parents, who wanted to balance his French-speaking mother’s faith in Gallic education with his father’s insistence that Orcel should have a strong connection to Italy. On entering university to study economics and commerce, he found little regard was paid to class attendance. So he left Rome and spent nine months backpacking in South America, returning to campus shortly before his first-year exams.
Unlike most in his profession, he wanted to be a banker from an early age: his university thesis was on hostile takeovers. But it would be several years after graduation before he became an advisory banker at Merrill Lynch, where he soon established himself as a rising star.
His career is not without blemish. Notably, he was an adviser on the calamitous €72bn deal that saw Dutch bank ABN Amro broken into three and sold to the Royal Bank of Scotland, Fortis and Santander. The deal’s unravelling ended up fuelling the financial crisis.
Orcel offers a mea culpa, although he caveats it with the fact that he worked on the Santander side of the buyout, which turned out well for it. “With the benefit of hindsight we should have done things differently. I cannot help but feel responsibility for my role. Do I take accountability? Yes . . . I do.”
The waiter clears our plates. We order espressos and address what Orcel might do next. He faces a choice many of us can only dream of: he could retire and cash in tens of millions of euros of UBS shares in the coming years or he could work for a competitor and leave the money behind. He insists he will not let the deferred UBS pay stop him from taking a job in financial services if the right one comes along.
We linger and the espresso cups are replaced by two complimentary glasses of a sweet Spanish liquor called Pacharan, made from crushed sloe berries. Fortified by the extra alcohol, I bring up Santander one last time. Few in the banking industry believe the official explanation that Botín’s decision to change her mind was all about money, that somehow the bank did not realise how much its new recruit was going to cost. Others familiar with the process have suggested Botín, a client of Orcel’s, saw a different side to him in the negotiations and realised his hard-charging personality would not fit Santander’s more consensual, federal structure. Orcel does not buy either explanation.
“All of the terms, economic and non-economic, were very well-known. And because of the closeness I have with that organisation, I was a very well-known entity to all the people involved. This is not a situation where you’re hiring one person and then you realise they’re different.”
He is reluctant to talk about his legal fight against Santander, although I have been told he is preparing to take it to court. He is nothing if not an obsessive. I suggest the battle could consume his life. It is something he has been thinking about. “I don’t want to be a hostage of this terrible situation. So I have put the matter in the hands of the [legal] professionals. I have told them there will be critical decisions so you will need to call me, but your main objective is to . . . take it to its natural conclusion. I don’t want to be on call every day. That is the challenge of my new life. Can I box it in?”
He insists he has come to terms with the situation, and several times uses the Arabic word “maktub”, which roughly translates as “it is written” or “it was meant to be”. But it would be wrong to interpret his apparent acceptance of his fate as a sign that he will abandon his battle against Santander. “I’m not known to be a person that lets go, especially when I think that the right thing to do is to not let go. It’s not only for me. Just imagine this situation on somebody who is less visible. It’s not right.”
David Crow is the FT’s banking editor