SPAIN - Grupo Santander has fired the head of its asset management business. Ismael Picon had been chief executive of Santander Asset Management for two years and he had worked for the bank since 1993.

Sources close to the bank said that Picon was given the news on Monday. Santander confirmed the change. Picon will be replaced by Inés Serrano, who becomes the first woman to lead the business.

Picón led Santander Asset Management through a period of sustained growth but in the last year its dominance of the Spanish funds market has begun to falter. Investment funds under management have grown 10% in the year to the end of June but growth ground to a halt in the second quarter of this year.

At the same time, BBVA Asset Management, the second ranked house in the Spanish market, has had a tremendous year. Investment funds under management grew at nearly the double the rate that Santander managed. It also managed growth of nearly four percent in the difficult second quarter.

According to Cinco Dias, the Spanish business daily, a colleague of Picón’s said: “He is leaving for personal reasons owing to desire to lead his own project.”

In the past, Picón has made it clear that he believes the only place to do serious asset management in Spain is at the two big houses which between them have over 50% market share.

It may be now however that leadership has become an issue. In 2002 Santander brought in Jorge Moran from Morgan Stanley over Picón’s head to oversee asset management and insurance. Moran has been responsible for shifting the business mix from straight fund management towards fund packaging, most notably with the highly successful Superselección range of guaranteed funds of funds.

Moran has been recruiting his own people to freshen up the asset management business.