Albert Frère, the Belgian billionaire whose investments shaped some of Europe’s largest companies in more than half a century of dealmaking, died Dec. 3 at 92.
His company Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL) announced the death but provided no further details.
Mr. Frère 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, cement producer LafargeHolcim, athletic-shoe maker Adidas, distiller Pernod Ricard and the energy company Engie.
He didn’t operate alone. Mr. Frère had a long-term partnership with Canada’s Desmarais family, with which he controlled Pargesa Holding, 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 89, Mr. Frère stepped down as chief executive of GBL and resigned from the board, and quit 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 Mr. Frère in a 2007 interview with Bloomberg News.
Mr. Frère helped to broker some of France’s biggest transactions, including the merger of Suez and state-controlled Gaz de France in the nation’s third-biggest takeover at the time.
The original deal, announced in February 2006, was deadlocked by political haggling and shareholder objections. It concluded more than a year later, after a meeting between Mr. Frère and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the French newspaper La Tribune. The combined company is now named Engie.
In the 1980s, Mr. Frère became the largest shareholder in the Belgian oil producer Petrofina, acquiring as much as 41 percent of the company. After failing to interest Elf Aquitaine, 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.
Mr. Frère often swapped big stakes in small companies for pieces of bigger ones. He did that in 1996 when he sold his 25 percent stake in Belgian utility Tractebel to a unit of Suez, which later led to a merger of the two companies.
Mr. Frère was born on Feb. 4, 1926, in the Belgian village of Fontaine-l’Eveque. He was 4 when his father died, leaving his mother in charge of the family nail-and-chain business.
His formal education ended at high school. He joined the family company full time in 1947 at 21. The operation had slowed to a near-standstill under German occupation in the early 1940s.
After the war, Mr. Frère revived sales by sending envoys to sell his family’s products across Belgium, benefiting from a building boom. By the time he was 28, he 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.
Mr. Frère 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. In making the trade, he wrote a clause into the contract giving him the right to sell his Bertelsmann shares on the stock market.
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 did not want the company to go public.
Mr. Frère’s prescient purchases and tendency to hold positions for decades rather than years prompted comparisons to Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.
“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, Mr. Frère was friends with monarchs, heads of state and industry leaders. With business partner Bernard Arnault, Mr. Frère owned half of the fabled Chateau Cheval Blanc vineyard in Saint-Emilion, France, near Bordeaux.
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,” Mr. Frère 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 two surviving children, Gérald Frère and Ségolène Gallienne, are involved with the family business. His other son, Charles-Albert, died in a car crash in 1999 at 19. No other family information was immediately available.
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