Albert Frere, Belgian Billionaire Investor, Dies at 92

(Bloomberg) -- Albert Frere, the Belgian billionaire whose investments shaped some of Europe’s largest companies in more than half a century of deal-making, has died, according to his Groupe Bruxelles Lambert SA. He was 92.

Frere became Belgium’s richest man by turning his family’s nail and chain business into an empire stretching from energy to alcohol. He held interests in oil producer Total SA, cement maker LafargeHolcim Ltd., athletic-shoe maker Adidas AG, distiller Pernod Ricard SA and energy company Engie SA.

He didn’t operate alone. Frere had a long-term partnership with Canada’s Desmarais family, with whom he controlled Pargesa Holding SA, a company in Geneva that in turn owns half of Brussels-based GBL, the vehicle that holds his investments in publicly traded companies. In 2015, at age 89, Frere stepped down as chief executive officer of Groupe Bruxelles and resigned from the board, while also quitting as vice chairman of Pargesa.

“He has uncanny timing in making investments,” Henry Kravis, a co-founder of New York-based KKR & Co., said of Frere in a 2007 interview with Bloomberg News.

Frere helped to broker some of France’s biggest transactions, including the merger of Suez SA and state-controlled Gaz de France SA in the nation’s third-biggest takeover at the time.

Oil Deal

The original deal, announced in February 2006, was deadlocked by political haggling and shareholder objections, and it concluded more than a year later, following a meeting between Frere and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the French newspaper La Tribune. The combined company is now named Engie SA.

In the 1980s, Frere became the largest shareholder in the Belgian oil producer Petrofina SA, acquiring as much as 41 percent of the company. After failing to interest Elf Aquitaine SA, France’s then-largest oil company, in a takeover of Petrofina, he turned to smaller rival Total instead. A merged Petrofina and Total later acquired Elf.

He had net assets worth $5.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Swapping Stakes

Frere often swapped big stakes in small companies for pieces of bigger ones. He did just that in 1996 when he sold his 25 percent stake in Belgian utility Tractebel SA to a unit of Suez, which later led to a merger of the two companies.

“I’ve always been pleased with the investments I’ve made with my friend Albert Frere and I regret not having followed him more, because I would have been a lot richer,” Bernard Arnault, the chief executive officer of Paris-based luxury-goods maker LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, was quoted as saying in a Financial Times article in 2012.

Born on Feb. 4, 1926, in the Belgian village of Fontaine-L’Eveque, Frere was the youngest of three children. His father, Oscar, died when Albert was 4, leaving his mother Madeleine in charge of the family nail and chain business.

Frere’s formal education ended at high school. He joined the family company full-time in 1947 at age 21, according to a 1997 biography by Jose-Alain Fralon. The operation had slowed to a near-standstill under German occupation in the early 1940s.

After the war, Frere revived sales by sending envoys to sell his family’s products across Belgium, benefiting from a building boom. By the time he was 28, Frere used profits from the family business to acquire a steel mill in Charleroi, the first of a series of purchases that would consolidate much of Belgium’s steel industry.

Frere didn’t limit his financial prowess to Belgium and France. In 2001, he swapped his 30 percent holding in Luxembourg-based broadcaster RTL Group for a 25 percent stake in German media company Bertelsmann AG. In making the trade, he wrote a clause into the contract giving him the right to sell his Bertelsmann shares on the stock market.

Bertelsmann Deal

In 2006, he approached the Mohn family, which controls Bertelsmann, seeking 4.5 billion euros for his shares. He got his price after announcing plans to sell his stake, against the wishes of some Mohn family members who didn’t want the company to go public.

Kravis said the deal Frere did with RTL and Bertelsmann was “probably one of the best I’ve ever seen, ever.”

His relationship with the Desmarais family dates to their 1981 acquisition of Pargesa, the family’s Montreal-based company, Power Corp. of Canada, said in a statement Monday. “Albert Frere was instrumental in the development of GBL and Pargesa and we will be forever grateful to him for his invaluable contribution to our group,” said Andre Desmarais, Power’s co-chief executive officer.

In 2012, the agreement governing the strategic partnership in Europe between the Desmarais and Frere families was extended to 2029.

Frere’s prescient purchases and tendency to hold positions for decades rather than years prompted comparisons to Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

“He doesn’t really care about short-term fluctuations,” said Tom Simonts, an analyst at KBC Securities in Brussels. “He’s more or less the Warren Buffett of Belgium.”

Named a baron by Belgium’s King Albert II in 1994, Frere was friends with monarchs, heads of state and industry leaders. With business partner Arnault, Frere owned half of the fabled Chateau Cheval Blanc vineyard in Saint-Emilion, near Bordeaux, France.

He often conducted business deals in informal settings, such as when he bought a stake in Pernod Ricard after a 2006 hunting trip with then-CEO Patrick Ricard in northern France. Pursuing his favorite sport, the Belgian baron hunted red-legged partridge with Kravis and King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

“I want to be remembered as someone who had marked their passage in the world,” Frere said in a 2007 interview in his penthouse near Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. “To leave something, a good souvenir, is all that I ask.”

His son, Gerald Frere, is chairman of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert and vice chairman of Pargesa. Frere’s daughter, Segolene Gallienne, sits on the board of both companies, and her husband, Ian Gallienne, is co-CEO of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert. His other son, Charles-Albert, died in a car crash in 1999 at age 19.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.