Career Path: Claudio Aguirre, senior Spanish banker

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Claudio Aguirre is a founding partner of Altamar Private Equity, a Spanish fund of private equity funds. Until December 2003 he was co-chairman of investment banking for Merrill Lynch for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He says his career is founded on a willingness to take risks.

My life could have been very different. My father was a naval architect and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I began studying naval architecture. However, when my father died I chose to study economics instead, at the University of Madrid.

Then I took a Masters in Economics at the Instituto de Empresa, the Madrid business school. When I graduated in 1979, foreign banks had just arrived in Madrid and they needed staff.

Fluency in English and a business-related degree made banks keen to hire me. I joined Chase Manhattan and was sent to America for nine months on a training programme.

Being a bachelor in New York was fun. The programme was intense, but life was great. Chase recruited good people like Emilio Saracho, who now runs JP Morgan in Spain, and Juan Del Rivero, who is a partner in charge of Goldman Sachs in Spain.

After nine months, I went to London. The euro bond market was taking off; I was doing everything from arranging syndicated loans to structuring derivatives and interest rate swaps.

I enjoyed connecting with clients and put a lot of time into knowing the products better than other people. Chase went to the top of the league tables. When the bank wanted to open a new Spanish business three years later, I was asked to run the investment banking unit, which was involved in some of the first big M&A deals in Spain.

After a few months, aged 31, I was asked to head the whole of the Madrid office. I accepted, but wasn't sure it was what I wanted: a senior organisational role might stop me spending time with clients. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait around to find out: I got a call from Goldman Sachs asking me to develop their business in Spain. I accepted.

Hence I became the first Spaniard to work for Goldman Sachs. At that time the bank hired one of each continental European nationality in London: there was also a Frenchman, a German and an Italian.

Moving to Goldman was a risky decision: I was starting again from scratch. At Chase, I had a nice life as head of the office and 200 people working for me. At Goldman, I had no one reporting to me and was starting a business from nothing. But I needed to do it: my learning curve was plateauing.

After a year at Goldman, I introduced Saracho and Del Rivero, my former colleagues at Chase, to the partners at the firm. They decided to join Goldman too and seven spectacular years followed. The Spanish government was doing a lot of privatisations and we got all the mandates. We did deal after deal. Our relationships led to M&A work. We played a huge role in restructuring the Spanish utility sector.

Throughout this time, I was travelling a lot. I would leave home on a Monday and come back on a Thursday. Weekends were in the office. There were more times than I can remember when I had to cancel a family occasion. It always made my wife furious.

By 1994 I sensed that our Spanish express might be about to run out of steam. Goldman had a 60%-70% share of the Spanish M&A market, but the pipeline looked dry. Most of the state companies were privatised and Spain lacked big multinationals.

I tried to persuade John Thornton, then head of Goldman Sachs in Europe, to open a local Spanish office and start covering second tier companies. He disagreed. I left and joined Merrill Lynch.

Merrill said they were keen to build a local franchise and start covering upper middle market Spanish companies. Again, it was a big risk from my point of view, but I needed another challenge. I wanted to see if my contacts would work in Spain without the Goldman name behind me.

They did. I competed against a team led by Del Rivero, who had remained at Goldman Sachs, for the next tranche of Telefonica privatisation, and won. It was a real coup d'etat. Merrill had never done any investment banking in Spain until then, and we won the trophy Spanish account.

Nevertheless, Merrill was slow to open a Spanish office. I thought it would be a good idea to buy an established presence in Spain and entered negotiations with FG, the leading independent Spanish broker at the time.

I needed approval from New York. It was the first acquisition that Merrill had made outside the US and there was a lot of opposition. In frustration, I went to visit David Komansky, then chief executive. He said he would support the purchase on one condition: that I arrange for him to run with the bulls during the Spanish fiesta of Pamplona. I agreed and with Komansky's support the deal was approved.

It turned out to be one of the most successful purchases that Merrill made. We only paid €25m euros, but during the following three years we made over €400m in bottom line profits. Komansky then asked me to move back to London and run the European wealth management and investment banking divisions. I came, but it was a big personal sacrifice. My wife and children stayed in Madrid.

In 2001 life became a lot harder. Merrill had a change in management. Stan O'Neal came on board as chief operating officer and chief executive in waiting. He had to cut costs and I had to make almost 40% of our investment bankers in Europe redundant. It was a tough job, particularly without my family there to boost my morale.

The fun started to go out of work. Managing people was less exciting than doing deals and building businesses. Merrill became a lot more political, which I disliked intensely. As a consequence, I decided to come back to Spain and my family.

I now run Altamar Private Equity, a private equity fund of funds with two Spanish financiers, one of them an ex-colleague from Chase. It is a new phase of my life: for the first time in 15 years I am able to have dinner every night with my family.

I have been lucky to have an exciting banking career: I participated in over 100 deals, worth over €800m in fees. It was fun and I made some good money. But I lost my personal life. Thankfully, I have now got it back.

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