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ZURICH (Reuters) - Vontobel Holding's biggest shareholder and patriarch of its founding family, Hans Vontobel, died on Jan. 3 at the age of 99, the Swiss bank said on Monday.
Vontobel stressed that the bank's independence after his death "was a matter of great importance" to Hans Vontobel, but his passing sparked talk that the controlling family might consider selling parts of the business or the entire bank to bigger rivals.
"Hans Vontobel held the family together," a source close to the bank said. "The question is whether (Chairman Herbert) Scheidt or someone else succeeds in keeping the family together. If that doesn't happen, then there is the threat of a sale."
Vontobel, whose three main businesses are wealth management, investment banking and asset management, declined to comment when asked about any potential sale.
Its shares were up 0.8 percent at 1102 GMT, outpacing the European banking index, which was down 2.6 percent.
Most Vontobel shares are held by the founding family and a shareholder pool that includes the Vontobel trust, bank executives and the family-run Vontrust.
Last month, Vontobel nominated two family members to the bank's board of directors, a move Hans Vontobel's son Hans-Dieter described as an important step to help it remain a family business.
Zuercher Kantonalbank analysts said the family's presence on the board, as well as the pooling agreement lasting to the end of 2017, meant Hans Vontobel's passing was unlikely to have a major impact on strategy or the ownership structure.
Hans Vontobel joined the bank in 1943, seven years after his father set up J. Vontobel & Co.
He remained its biggest shareholder with a roughly 20 percent stake and became honorary chairman in 1991. Until recently, he was still a regular presence at Vontobel's headquarters in Zurich, a spokesman said.
Scheidt said in a statement: "Hans Vontobel was one of the most important bankers in our country, but beyond that he was a convinced humanist, who put people at the heart of everything he did."
Additional reporting by Rupert Pretterklieber; Editing by Michael Shields and Tom Heneghan