Plenty of famous Belgians get mistaken for Frenchmen: author Georges Simenon, rock star Johnny Hallyday and painter René Magritte among them. As for the country’s most renowned businessman, he is just accused of enriching Frenchmen.
Albert Frère, whose family conglomerate is worth an estimated €18bn ($25bn), is as controversial in his homeland as he is successful. A proud Belgian, he has nevertheless been accused of “selling the family silver” after buying into a series of household names and merging them with larger French rivals.
He rose to prominence when he took control of GBL, a holding company with key stakes in several big corporates.
He merged PetroFina, the Belgian oil company he controlled, with Total of France. In the 1990s, he combined insurer Royale Belge with Axa of France and Tractebel, the Belgian energy group, with Suez, its French rival. He also sold Banque Bruxelles Lambert to ING of the Netherlands.
He has also determined the fate of Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate, and has influential stakes in companies such as Lafarge, the cement maker, and Pernod Ricard, the drinks group.
Mr Frère rarely speaks in public but in a recent media interview – perhaps, at 84, he was considering his legacy – he has rejected the charge.
Speaking to L’Echo, the Belgian business daily, he said that other Belgian investors had long ago stopped supporting national champions. He produced a list of 71 companies bought by foreigners, many during the 1970s, such as Barry Callebaut, the chocolate processor, and Glaverbel, the glassmaker owned by Japan’s Asahi glass.
GBL itself was close to collapse and could have fallen into foreign hands, he says, had he not come forward.
He points to investments in Belgian companies such as Solvay, the pharmaceutical group, Quick, the burger chain that has spread to France, and Ijsboerke, an ice cream maker.
However, his main defence is one of market logic. How could companies catering to a market of 10m prosper against global giants? Better to jump on their backs than be crushed underfoot. Or, according to a maxim attributed to him, “It’s better to share a good investment than have the whole of a bad one.”
He also said he was a “convinced European” and favoured European champions to purely domestic ones.
According to a recent interview with his son Gérald, 59, in the Belgian media, Albert Frère appointed his son as successor almost on a whim in 1992.
Gérald Frère said he and his father were at lunch with Paul Desmarais, the media-shy Quebecois with whom Mr Frère has co-invested for more than 25 years, when Mr Desmarais said he had handed over day-to-day affaits to his son. “But that’s what I am going to do,” said Albert, “from January 1.”
Mr Frere co-owns Château Cheval Blanc, a bordeaux wine producer, with Bernard Arnault, founder of luxury goods company LVMH. He counts Claude Bebear, of Axa, and Gerard Mestrallet of Suez GDF, among his friends and has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, and Ronald Reagan, the former US president.
He has stayed close to his roots, however. While Mr Frère has homes in Marrakech, San Tropez and Paris, among others, his office and family seat remains near Charleroi, at Gerpinnes, a small village to the south.
He set up a charitable foundation in memory of Charles Albert, his younger son, who died in a car crash in 1999.
His CNP has given €1.5m to a school in Marcinelle, an impoverished steel town near Charleroi where Marc Dutroux, the child serial killer, lived. It has also contributed a new building at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management.
He started his career in Charleroi in 1946 at that age of 20 in the family firm, Frere-Bourgeois, a nail merchant. He soon began buying steelmakers in his home town of Charleroi, riding Europe’s postwar economic boom. By 1979 he had built Cockerill Sambre into a huge combine that he sold to the Belgian state as it sought to rescue the industry from collapse.
More recently, the downturn has prompted a downbeat assessment from Gilles Samyn, chief executive at Compagnie Nationale a Portefeuille, a holding company.
“After a frankly morose 2008, the 2009 financial year yielded only a ‘mediocre’ harvest for the NPM/CNP Group,” said Mr Samyn and Gérald Frère, the chairman, in the annual report.
While its 10-year return, their favoured measure, made the company the third-best performing in the BEL-20 stock index, they dwelt at most length about its failures.
Entremont, a French cheesemaker, was hit by the artificially high price of milk, set by the government.
“This sad story is probably drawing to a close, even though the past has shown us that surprises sometimes lie ahead. Its impact on NPM/CNP’s long term performances (0.6 per cent) is not negligible and it will continue to be a blot on our copybook. Let us hope that we will draw lessons from the experience,” they wrote with a humilty that few bosses of public companies can muster.
But they were proud at least that they had steered clear of banks. As Mr Frère senior says, “I don’t sleep when I am in debt.”
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