Rafael del Pino: the billionaire road builder taking his toll in Spain

In 1981 Rafael del Pino was dispatched to the deserts of Muammer Gaddafi’s Libya to help Ferrovial, his father’s infrastructure group, build 700km of highways — a test of his mettle in one of the Spanish company’s most difficult markets.

The young engineer passed the test and four decades on he is the company’s chair. But the most hostile environment he faces today is in Spain.

The billionaire’s decision to shift Ferrovial’s head office from Madrid to the Netherlands, designed to pave the way to a share listing in New York, has incensed the Spanish government.

Del Pino, 64, has been accused of trashing Spain, avoiding tax and of ingratitude for abandoning a country whose publicly funded road and rail projects were the foundation of Ferrovial’s prosperity.

Most wounding of all were the words of Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez. “There are many businessmen who are committed to their country,” he said. “This is not the case with Del Pino.”

The Ferrovial boss was taken aback by the fierce reaction this month and tried to contact Sánchez, according to one person close to Del Pino, but his attempt was rebuffed.

His surprise suggests political naivety. One senior government official says it was a big mistake to not tell the prime minister the announcement was coming. Del Pino also failed to see that Ferrovial’s move would hit a nerve by highlighting a paradox of the leftwing government, which is wooing overseas investors while alienating some domestic companies with windfall taxes and accusations of greed.

Although Del Pino is under pressure, “he’s an extremely rational person — he tends to be dispassionate”, according to Alberto Terol, an entrepreneur who has known him as a client and fellow member of trade associations. Another person who first met Del Pino in the 1990s describes him as a “cold fish” who is not inclined to get angry.

His 20 per cent stake in Ferrovial is worth €4bn, making him Spain’s third- richest person, but he eschews the spotlight.

What makes him uncomfortable, according to one longtime friend, is how the clash with the government has become so public and personal. “He’s a guy who’s low-profile and allergic to conflict.” But it is a different matter if he is not cast as the protagonist, the friend added, and he is more than willing to drive his company into battle.

His greatest conquest came in 2006 with a hostile bid for BAA, the UK airports operator that owned Heathrow, which Ferrovial eventually acquired for more than £15bn including debt after outmanoeuvring Goldman Sachs in a frenetic auction. “They fight very hard,” said the person who has known him since the 1990s.

Born in Madrid in 1958, Del Pino grew up as his father, Rafael del Pino Moreno, built a business on public works contracts from the regime of dictator Francisco Franco. After studying civil engineering in the Spanish capital he joined the family business in the early 1980s, when his uncle Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, a marquess, was the country’s second democratically elected prime minister following the fall of Franco. In 1984 he took two years out for an MBA at MIT’s Sloan school.

Del Pino became chief executive in 1992 and was there for Ferrovial’s successful 1999 bid to manage a Toronto toll highway, a turning point in its international growth. But it was not until he replaced his father as chair in 2000 that he began to modernise the company and expand it decisively beyond its Spanish roots.

An anglophile averse to following the crowd, Del Pino did not join a rush into Latin America by other Spanish businesses. Instead he focused on the UK, Australia, Canada and the US, where another prized contract is its operation of Terminal 1 at New York’s JFK airport.

One appeal of the Anglo-Saxon world has been its “legal security”, which Ferrovial also cited as an advantage in the Netherlands — a slight on Spain that infuriated the government.

One business person recalls being on the wrong end of a “horrible” deal with Del Pino. In 2006 it sold its domestic real estate business to a Spanish consortium for €2.2bn including debt to offset borrowing amassed to buy BAA. The property market was overheating and even before the deal closed one consortium member had last-minute doubts. “But Del Pino has a big ego, and his ego persuaded them to go ahead,” the person said.

Jonathan Amouyal, a partner at hedge fund TCI, one of Ferrovial’s biggest shareholders, said Del Pino “is a visionary . . . very analytical, and someone who knows how to take measured risks. He thinks extremely quickly but doesn’t rush decisions.”

The Dutch ploy did not emerge from nowhere. Ferrovial listed its non-Spanish business in Amsterdam in 2018. A Netherlands-based entity called Rijn Capital has owned part or all of Del Pino’s stake in Ferrovial since 2015. Ferrovial says moving its head office to the country — long criticised for facilitating financial engineering — will be “neutral” for the company’s taxes and is not motivated by anyone’s personal interests.

Del Pino has said nothing publicly about the furore. A few days after it erupted his chief executive appeared in a video message to say Ferrovial would maintain jobs and investment in Spain.

The country now accounts for just 18 per cent of Ferrovial’s revenue and 5,000 of its employees, down from a peak of 35,000. The chief executive said the company hoped its new chapter “will be of great interest to many investors”. The Spanish government did not get a mention.

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