Banker of the year: González work ethic transcends multilayered career
The most celebrated fact about Francisco González is that, uniquely among bank CEOs – since May 2015 he has been executive chairman of BBVA – he began his career as a computer programmer.
In fact it was his 20-year career as a stockbroker that brought out the defining characteristics – a fierce work ethic and a determination always to prepare for the future – that prepared González to become a leader in digital banking.
He started at IBM in 1964 when he was 20 years old, after finishing an accounting degree. It was a side-step away from his plan to study economics.
“I was curious. I like to look to the future not the past, and computers seemed completely new,” he tells Euromoney. “I suspected I would be happy working with them.”
He got his wish. González worked on what was then the largest computer commercially available, the famous (at least to computer geeks) IBM 1401. “It had 8k of memory,” González recalls “and we programmed it with numbers not language. You had to be very focused and very eager. It reminded me of playing chess, a game I love. On one occasion I recall working straight through for three days and three nights.”
His work with IBM had taken him to Buenos Aires, but González returned to Spain to take an economics and business administration degree at the Complutense University of Madrid and to fulfil an even more dear ambition – to make himself wealthy.
He saw his chance on the executive committee of the Madrid stock exchange.
“I wanted to earn money and to be independent,” he recalls. “It was very hard studying for the exams to become a member of the exchange. Many of the members on it were professors and lawyers. I had to qualify as a kind of notary public before I was able to become a member.”
He says: “I spent five years, working and studying every day. In all that time, I did not take a single day’s vacation.”
But when he finally made it onto the exchange, he realized he had hit pay dirt. “It was open outcry trading and I loved it. I threw myself into the pits. I remember thinking that it was so much fun and so profitable that it could not possibly last. And so I began to prepare for the changes that had to come.”
As he had expected, changes to the law brought the glory days of individual stock exchange membership to an end. González had thought ahead and incorporated his own stock broking firm, FG Inversiones Bursátiles, which he proceeded to run for close to 10 years. He says: “It was very successful. At the age of 51, I sold it to Merrill Lynch and realized that I was a wealthy man.”
As well as chess and running, González also loves golf. He recalls: “I decided that I could now, for the first time in my 30 years, go and play golf on a working day. I went on the Monday morning and it was wonderful. I went back on Tuesday and it wasn’t quite so enjoyable. I went on Wednesday and wondered: ‘What am I going to do now?’” He says: “The richest person is not the person with most money. It is the person who doesn’t need anything.”
González realized that he needed to work.
Two months later, in 1996, the government of Spain approached him to become president of the state-owned Argentaria, a holding company for a range of pubic banks including Banco Exterior, the Postal Savings Bank and the Agricultural Credit Bank. The Spanish government was intent on privatizing Argentaria, and González thought this might be an interesting post-retirement job to see him through the next couple of years. He stuck around for the merger with Banco Bilbao Vizcaya in 1999, working alongside its chairman, Emilio Ybarra, one of the giant figures of Spanish banking, as co-head of the newly enlarged group.
Twenty years on, González is still there. By 2015 it had become clear to him that the extent to which his name and that of BBVA had become synonymous was bordering on unhealthy for both the bank and him. He handed over to a new chief executive to complete the digital journey, reducing his direct reports to vital control functions such as audit, accounting, regulation and strategic M&A. It is an enlightened move.
The end point of the digital transformation for BBVA and the banking industry at large remains unclear. What is certain is that it is for the way he applied his work ethic and eagerness to anticipate transformative industry changes at BBVA, rather than as a stockbroker or a computer programmer, that Francisco González will be remembered.