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BANKING

Santander: Doubling up on Poland

Santander’s 2010 acquisition of a 70% stake in Poland’s Bank Zachodni put it in a strong position in Europe’s most resilient economy. Now, in a smart all-share deal, the Spanish bank is adding Kredyt Bank to its Polish portfolio.

With 40 million underbanked inhabitants, an unblemished growth record over the past decade and a banking sector that posted record profits last year despite the turmoil in neighbouring countries to east and west, Poland is the undisputed star in the European banking firmament.

"It is considered hands down the blue-chip country to be in, because of the population size, the growth, the resilience and because people interpret the existing fragmentation as an opportunity to grow," says Janos Strohmayer, a partner at McKinsey.

Although a Polish presence has been on many bankers’ wish lists for several years – and especially since the country avoided the near-universal recession in 2009 – gaining a foothold has proved nigh-on impossible for new entrants. Poland’s very success has meant that those banks lucky enough to have got in early are loth to leave, or at least expect hefty compensation for doing so. Moreover, since the eurozone crisis began to bite, few western European banks have had capital to spare for costly acquisitions.

There has, however, been a surprising exception. In less than two years, Santander has acquired not one but two large players in Poland, taking it straight in at number three in the country’s banking rankings – an achievement that’s all the more impressive since the group’s home market, Spain, is one of Europe’s most troubled and capital-constrained banking environments.