Ana Botín is possibly the most self-made person ever to…succeed her dad in the family’s multibillion-dollar business. She achieved this oxymoronic feat under sad circumstances when she was named global chairman of Banco Santander on Sept. 10 after the fatal heart attack of her father, Emilio.
Botín, 53, is one of just six women at the helm of a Fortune Global 100 company—the bank’s $99 billion in revenue puts it at No. 73—and the first of her gender to chair a global financial organization. “It’s another glass ceiling broken,” says Santander board member and Fortune columnist Sheila Bair. Botín is also on the board of Coca-Cola and has established multiple foundations.
She ushers in the fourth generation of Botín leadership at the 157-year old Spanish bank. Though the family owns only 2% of the bank, it’s often described as a “family business,” one shaped by Emilio, a charismatic, authoritarian figure who is credited with transforming it from a tiny repository into one of the world’s largest banks.
Ana, the eldest of six children and the only one in banking, was groomed by her father to succeed him, says Mauro Guillén, a Wharton professor who has written a book on Santander. A graduate of Bryn Mawr, Botín did a stint at J.P. Morgan before joining Santander, where early on she launched investment banking in Latin America. The venture was not successful, but Guillén says her efforts paved the way for Santander’s expansion there.
“It’s another glass ceiling broken,” says Santander director Sheila Bair of Botín’s appointment as chairman. “She’s smart, she’s savvy…I can’t imagine anyone better qualified.”
Botín’s dad didn’t make it easy for her: In 1999, with a soon-to-be-acquired bank concerned about family dominance, her father made her resign from Santander. It may have seemed like tough love, but it paid off: Botín started an IT consultancy for banks and ran a private equity fund, which she has described as among the most demanding and rewarding experiences of her career. Three years after leaving Santander, she returned to head up Banesto, one of Santander’s big bank holdings. Then came a stint running Santander U.K., which she quickly transformed into a highly profitable and well-run business.
Botín’s appointment won unanimous board approval (despite grumblings about nepotism by some investors). “It was the obvious choice,” says Bair. “She’s smart, she’s savvy, she works hard, and she has devoted her career to Santander. I can’t imagine anyone better qualified.”
Botín is a good listener, communicator, and consensus-builder, according to people interviewed by Fortune. “She has worked in many different parts of the banking industry,” says Guillén, who emphasizes that Botín is from a different mold than her father. “She speaks several languages fluently. She’s worked on three continents. She’s cosmopolitan.” Now all she has to do is lead a giant bank through an era of historic financial turbulence.
This story is from the October 6, 2014 issue of Fortune.</em