Albert Frère: the Warren Buffett of Belgium

Albert Frere © Getty

Albert Frère, who has died aged 92, was a dealmaker with uncanny timing who transformed Europe’s steel, utilities and banking sectors in a career spanning more than 60 years. Jane Lewis reports.

According to Forbes, the great French luxury magnate, LVMH’s Bernard Arnault, is worth some $66bn. By his own admission he could have been worth a lot more. “I’ve always been pleased with the investments I’ve made with my friend Albert Frère,” observed Arnault in 2012. “I regret not having followed him more because I would have been a lot richer.”

Plenty of others seem to agree that Frère – Belgium’s richest man and most celebrated investor, who has died aged 92 – had a certain je ne sais quoi. One peer, the famed corporate raider, Henry Kravis of KKR, lauded his “uncanny timing in making investments”.

A multinational-merger master

Frère was a “master of multinational mergers” who “helped solidify the economic integration of Europe”, says The New York Times. “I am a Belgian first of all, but I am also a European”, he told the Financial Times in 1999. “If we want to build Europe, these kinds of national barriers have to come down.”

In a career lasting more than 60 years, Frère and his company Groupe Bruxelles Lambert “helped transform the face of the continent’s steel, utilities and banking sectors”, says the FT. “Swathes of European industry passed through Frère’s hands”.

He had interests in everything from oil-producer Total (which he merged with Belgium’s Petrofina) and cement-maker LafargeHolcim, through to Adidas, the energy company Engie, and distiller Pernod Ricard. In later years, he also found his footing as a kingmaker in Europe’s publishing and media scene. Often described as “the Warren Buffett of Belgium”, Frère was certainly “no short-term stock market player”, says The Daily Telegraph. A brush with Drexel Burnham Lambert, the junk-bond firm that went spectacularly bust, “prompted him to withdraw from the financial sector” in the 1990s. He wasn’t interested in hostile takeovers. “I don’t climb in through the window,” he observed. “It’s essential that we’re accepted by managements.”

Born in 1926 in Belgium’s coal and steel region, Frère was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was young, leaving his mother in charge of the family metal business, says the FT. Frère, a high-school dropout, oversaw its expansion during the post-World War II building boom and credits her with teaching him thrift. “Extinguish the lamps,” she would tell him. “We don’t have the resources of the Rothschilds”.

Starting with steel

Frère’s first big move was to buy a steel mill in Charleroi, “the first of a series of purchases that would consolidate much of Belgium’s steel industry”. With good timing, he later sold the steel business to the government in 1983 – shortly “before the sector descended into the first of several crises”, notes The Daily Telegraph. After he established Pargesa Holding in Geneva with the Canadian tycoon Paul Desmarais, the partners took over Group Bruxelles Lambert in 1982.

Frère, made a baron by the Belgian king in 1994,  was an easy-going character who “often conducted business deals in informal settings”, says Bloomberg. He loved la chasse. He bought into Pernod Ricard following a 2006 hunting trip with a member of the Ricard dynasty, and enjoyed shooting red-legged partridge with King Juan Carlos of Spain.

And he tended to view deal-making in much the same light. “It’s so enriching and really amusing to succeed at a deal,” he told The New York Times in 2006. “It’s like when little children receive gifts. For me, it’s the same thing.”

 

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