Banking in Spain: Natural allies exploit common ground

Intesa Sanpaolo is a leading bank in Spain as well as Italy, with particular strength in the corporate bond market. Robert Galbraith meets Marco Pizzi, the organisation’s head in Madrid, who suggests its success is partly explained by shared Mediterranean sensibilities.

Robert Galbraith


Italy and Spain have a lot in common, not least their Latin-based languages and Mediterranean cultures. But sometimes it is where they differ that is most important in bilateral business relations.

Marco Pizzi, head of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Branch in Spain, came to that conclusion after many years working in a Spanish environment. “Even if both Italians and Spanish have a strong sense of being part of a southern community they have different personalities and qualities,” he says.

Italians favour individuality in nurturing creative flair while the Spanish excel at teamwork in developing ideas and projects, he believes. Italian organisations usually reach a decision through consensus while Spanish organisations are often built around a leader.

Pizzi feels that these attributes are complementary and make the two countries natural allies in a number of ways.

Pizzi’s career path started at Sanpaolo IMI, the Turin banking group, before it merged with Banca Intesa. It took him first to New York and then to Latin America, where he set up offices in Buenos Aires and Santiago where he has been member of the Banco del Desarrollo’s Board of Directors from 1999 to 2008. In 2003, he was transferred to Spain and after the Intesa Sanpaolo merger became the group’s general manager for the Iberian peninsula.

Intesa Sanpaolo is one of the leading banks operating in Spain, currently the leading non-Spanish bank in the country, especially strong in the corporate and investment banking. Total bond issuance has now reached E927 million.

This is the consequence of the strong relationships Intesa Sanpaolo has been able to build and consolidate with the most important groups in Spain. It can also be attributed to the feeling that Spanish and Italian banks and corporates are part of the southern Europe market, a market within the EU, a feeling that has been strengthened during the recent crisis.

“Cross-border acquisitions are easier to consolidate since there is no need to change the culture of the acquired company due these parallels”
he says, citing Aldeasa, Endesa, Unidad Editorial and Esprinet.


Intesa Sanpaolo has worked with all of Italy’s largest groups active in Spain, including Mediaset, Saras and Esprinet. It has also had as clients major Spanish groups operating in Italy, such as Gas Natural, Inditex, Cellnex and highways operator Abertis.

However, Spain is also a vital platform for entry to Latin American markets where Spanish companies are very active,

especially in building infrastructure. “They often work together, so when they build a road, one will work on the construction, another will build pipelines for gas and a third will put digital cables alongside and they will be supported by the countries’ top banks with strong networks in Latam. They know how to create networks and it is a big source of project finance,” Pizzi explains.

Through its Madrid Italian Desk, Intesa Sanpaolo serves more than 300 Spanish subsidiaries of Italian clients which in Italy are served by the Corporate & Public Finance Department and by the Banca dei Territori Division. According to data of the Chamber of Commerce and of the Italian Embassy in Madrid, more than 800 Italian companies operate in Spain, with a marked presence in Cataluña.

The Intesa Sanpaolo manager is a former basketball player who went on to coach a team in Italy. He sees the dynamics of working in groups and companies as similar to a basketball team. “You need to have mutual respect. Even when one player is scoring most of the points, he can only do it if others help – and they will not do it unless there is recognition for their role,” Pizzi says. He likes to quote Michael Jordan: “Talent wins games, but only teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

His work for the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Madrid has also given him valuable insight into Spanish and Italian business. In 2007 the Chamber was in a complicated situation and the general opinion was to close it, but Pizzi argued for it to be kept open. He was put in charge and it is now one of the most important Italian chambers of commerce in the world, with representatives of many influential companies on its board.  He received the Medal of Honor for his work. He has also been given the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity from the Italian president.

Pizzi is optimistic about the Spanish economy, which has less bureaucracy and tax pressure than Italy, and positive about new, more flexible labour laws.

Most of all, he thinks the two countries could work together in a number of areas of common interest. “If you bring 20 different nationalities to a workshop, the Italian and Spanish teams will inevitably choose to sit down together.” He suggests this closeness might be used for a southern European alliance to bring more balance to a north-dominated European Union.

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