Industrialist and investor Albert Frère, for long Belgium’s richest man, has died at the age of 92. Frère’s story is a rags-to-riches tale. From humble beginnings as a trader in scrap metal in the years after the Second World War, he rose to be the most powerful businessman in the country at the head of the Groupe Bruxelles Lambert. He was also, year after year, at the top of the table of Belgium’s richest men. His father died shortly after Albert was born in 1926, and he grew up helping his mother as she ran a business making chains, nails and other metal objects from the scrap he spent the days collecting on his cart.
His business philosophy, he said, was simple: buy cheap and sell dear. By investing here and there, in whatever business prospect seemed likely to turn a profit for him, he created and led what became Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL), one of the most influential industrial holding companies on the Belgian economic scene, with influence extending into France. His first major coup came in 1954 when he took over the ailing steel company Laminoirs de Ruau, once one of the biggest in his home region around Charleroi. He turned the business around and extended into Latin America, the Middle East and the then Soviet Union.
He then sold his steel business to the Belgian state, having seen earlier than most that the industry in Belgium was on the decline. From there he took over GBL, which included the bank BBL. He also took over the overseas interests of Paribas, a move which prevented the French bank from being nationalised by the government of François Mitterrand. In 1997 he sold BBL to the Dutch bank ING.
Few businesses in Belgium escaped his attention, buying cheap and selling at a profit: Petrofina (sold to Total) GB, Brico, Quick restaurants, opticians Pearle.
The Frère family was most recently listed as the fourth-richest in the country, but Frère’s personal rating as the richest individual, with a personal fortune estimated at three billion euros, was virtually unassailable for decades. He stepped down as managing director of GBL in 2015, at the age of 89, leaving the company in the hands of his son-in-law Ian Gallienne.