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Belgian Billionaire Was a Quiet Force in Europe's Boardrooms

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12/07/2018 | 05:17pm CET

By Patrick McGroarty

A built a heap of nails and chains into one of Belgium's biggest fortunes.

The future industrialist left school at 17 to run his family's nail-making business. He turned it into a steelmaking powerhouse and then he went on a shopping spree.

In 1982 he took a controlling stake in Groupe Bruxelles Lambert SA, a conglomerate with a focus on finance and roots in Belgium's colonial past. He deepened GBL's interests in insurance, media and oil.

His knack for a well-timed deal and taste for a spirited fight made him a familiar scold of European corporate boards well into the 21st century. He held controlling stakes in French cement maker Lafarge SA and water company Suez SA. German publishing giant Bertelsmann SE & Co. went into debt in 2006 to buy out Mr. Frere's 25% stake in the company for 4.5 billion euros ($5.13 billion).

He rarely discussed his investments or strategy publicly. But he had an oft-quoted axiom to describe his conviction that a sound investment required a big enough stake to sway a company's leaders: "Small minority shareholder, small fool; big minority shareholder, bigger fool."

Mr. Frere died on Dec. 3 at 92 years of age.

Albert Frere was born Feb. 4, 1926, in a village near Charleroi, Belgium, a coal-mining and steelmaking town that had helped power Europe's Industrial Revolution.

By the years after World War II, when Mr. Frere was building his reputation as an opportunistic investor with impeccable timing, Charleroi was fading. The region's declining fortunes contributed to his image as an interloper among Europe's moneyed investment class. The Wall Street Journal in 1984 quoted a critic describing him as "a nouveau riche from the sticks."

That was shortly after he wrested control of GBL from Baron Leon Lambert, a scion of Europe's financial elite.

He expanded GBL's holdings in banks and oil companies, then sold off some of those stakes toward the end of the 20th century during a wave of corporate consolidation in Europe.

He used other holding companies to continue investing across the Continent. In addition to his stakes in Bertelsmann, Lafarge and Suez, he created a joint investment fund of more than $1 billion in 2006 with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA chairman Bertrand Arnault. Messrs. Arnault and Frere also purchased Chateau Cheval Blanc, a top vineyard in France's Bordeaux region, in 1999.

Mr. Frere collected 18th-century furniture and art, including paintings by Rene Magritte, who also lived for a time in Charleroi. King Albert of Belgium bestowed on Mr. Frere the title of baron in 1994. He stepped down as chief executive of GBL three years ago.

Mr. Frere is survived by two children, Gérald Frère and Ségolène Gallienne, both of whom serve on GBL's board. Ms. Gallienne's husband, Ian Gallienne, is GBL's co-chief executive.

Write to Patrick McGroarty at patrick.mcgroarty@wsj.com

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