Business

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituary: Albert Frere

Steelmaker whose investments made him Belgium's richest man

Albert Frere, Belgium’s richest man
Albert Frere, Belgium’s richest man

Albert Frere, who died last Monday aged 92, was the richest man in Belgium, having amassed an industrial fortune through a flair for buying and holding business stakes until the time was ripe to sell.

In the post-war decades, Frere built up his family's metalworking company, Frere-Bourgeois, to become Belgium's leading steelmaker, but sold its mills to the government in 1983 before the sector descended into the first of several crises.

He changed direction to acquire a controlling interest, in partnership with a Canadian tycoon, Paul Desmarais, in Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL), one of Belgium's leading financial and industrial conglomerates, which became his base of operations thereafter.

GBL's portfolio included banking and insurance businesses, but the bankruptcy of its US associate, Drexel Burnham Lambert, caused by involvement in the "junk bond" market in the 1980s boom, prompted Frere to withdraw from the financial sector and focus on Belgian industrial interests, many of which he traded into stakes in European multinationals - latterly including the French energy giant Total, the cement maker LafargeHolcim, the sports shoe maker Adidas, and the drinks group Pernod Ricard.

He also acquired a holding in the Luxembourg-based broadcaster RTL, and swapped it in 2001 for a 25pc stake in the German media group Bertelsmann, with a clause giving him the right to sell his shares on the public market.

Five years later, he sold them back to Bertelsmann's controlling Mohn family for a rich price of €4.5bn (worth about €5.4bn today).

Albert Frere was born on February 4, 1926 near Charleroi, where his father Oscar, who died when Albert was four, was a scrap metal dealer and supplier of nails.

His mother, Madeleine, kept the business going but it was almost moribund when Albert joined her in 1947 and began to drive it forward again in Belgium's post-war building boom.

By the mid-1950s, profits were large enough to fund the purchase of a steel mill in Charleroi that formed the foundation of Frere-Bourgeois.

Frere remained chief executive of GBL until he was 89, but maintained a low media profile. One account of his lifestyle in 2005 was headlined "Ses deux amours: l'argent et le vin" ("his two loves: money and wine").

He was made a baron by King Albert II in 1994.

Albert Frere was first married to Nelly Poplimont, by whom he had a son, Gerald, now chairman of GBL.

He married, secondly, Christine Henning, by whom he had a daughter, Segolene (also a director of GBL) and a son, Charles-Albert, who died in a car accident aged 19.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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