Notorious Spanish businessman José María Ruiz-Mateos dies at 84

Founder of Rumasa and Nueva Rumasa conglomerates was facing fraud charges

José María Ruiz-Mateos in 2011.
José María Ruiz-Mateos in 2011.Claudio Álvarez

José María Ruiz-Mateos, a controversial Spanish businessman who founded the conglomerates Rumasa and Nueva Rumasa, has died at age 84 in a hospital in Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz), said his longtime lawyer Joaquín Yvancos. Relatives of the deceased have confirmed the news.

The conservative entrepreneur, once a member of the Catholic group Opus Dei, had been in hospital since mid-August, after he fell and broke his hip. His condition was further complicated by a pneumonia infection.

At the time of his death, Ruiz-Mateos was facing several criminal charges relating to fraud. A number of his 13 children are also being investigated by the courts.

Ruiz-Mateos fled the authorities in October 1988 after donning a raincoat and a wig, throwing off police officers

A judge had ordered him sent to prison on June 18, but the businessman was instead hospitalized as a result of other health problems. Ruiz-Mateos’s legal team had appealed the court’s decision, presenting medical reports that said their client was suffering from “a very serious illness” that was affecting his physical and cognitive abilities.

A notoriously passionate and outspoken man, Ruiz-Mateos was obsessed with creating an empire. Thirty years ago, he declared that “when I create 100,000 jobs, I will be ready to die.”

Such words made him popular, even though the economists and lawyers who had access to his numerous companies say that Ruiz-Mateos was much more of a financier – or speculator – than an entrepreneur, having created few actual jobs. Instead, he specialized in buying existing companies that financed one another in what amounted to pyramid schemes.

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History will remember him as the originator of one of the biggest financial scandals in modern Spanish history. In 1983, the Socialist government of Felipe González expropriated his conglomerate Rumasa, a holding that controlled 18 banks and around 800 companies, after finding a massive hole in the group’s balance sheet. The administration said the potential collapse of Rumasa posed a serious threat to the health of the local economy.

But supporters of the conservative entrepreneur consistently held throughout the years that Ruiz-Mateos was a victim of the Socialist government – which the entrepreneur sued. Ruiz-Mateos always held then-economy minister Miguel Boyer responsible for his troubles, and once famously punched him outside a courthouse. His lawsuit against the state did not prosper, as both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court ratified the legality of the expropriation.

Ruiz-Mateos’s flair for scandal did not stop there. In March 1983 he fled to London but was extradited back to Spain in November 1985. He fled again in October 1988 after donning a raincoat and a wig, throwing off police officers who were escorting him into the High Court.

Clesa, one of the firms that made up Nueva Rumasa, went into receivership in 2011.
Clesa, one of the firms that made up Nueva Rumasa, went into receivership in 2011.Carlos Puga

Despite his best efforts, the entrepreneur eventually served prison time for fraud and tax embezzlement, but he bounced back to found his own political party, which secured two seats at the 1989 European elections and made him a member of the European Parliament.

Years later he founded a new business holding, Nueva Rumasa, which landed him in fresh trouble. In 2011, it emerged that Nueva Rumasa had misled investors about the destination of the funds it derived from promissory notes issued by companies in the group. Investors were never paid back and the High Court prosecuted Ruiz-Mateos for fraud. Around 5,000 people had invested an estimated €140 million in the notes.

In another famous statement, Ruiz-Mateos once declared that if investors were not repaid he would shoot himself in the head – if only his religious beliefs would let him.

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