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Frere, Belgium's richest man, to step down as chief of GBL

[PARIS] Albert Frere, Belgium's richest man, is retiring as head of Europe's second-biggest investment holding firm, ending an almost seven-decade career in which he teamed up with Canada's Desmarais family to build stakes in some of France's biggest companies.

Mr Frere, who turns 89 tomorrow, will resign from the board of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert SA and step down as chief executive officer after the annual meeting April 28, the company said in a statement on its website. He also is giving up his roles as vice chairman and executive director at Pargesa SA, GBL's controlling shareholder, Pargesa said.

His retirement completes a generational handover for both families at GBL, which owns shares in companies including French oil giant Total SA and drinks maker Pernod Ricard SA.

Ian Gallienne, Mr Frere's son in law, and Gerard Lamarche, who both became managing directors in 2012, will continue to handle the daily management of the company, GBL said.

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"Albert Frere emphasized that, as co-controlling shareholder, he will remain deeply attached to the group and will follow with attention and interest its activities and its evolution," said Paul Desmarais Jr, who became a vice chairman of GBL's board alongside his father, Paul Desmarais Sr, in 2012. The elder Desmarais died in 2013.

Mr Frere's son Gerald became GBL's chairman in 2012 as part of a succession plan.

GBL rose 2 per cent to 75.11 euros at 3:30pm in Brussels valuing the company at 12.1 billion euros (US$13.9 billion) and making it Europe's second-biggest investment holding company after Investor AB Pargesa climbed 2.7 per cent to 68.85 Swiss francs in Zurich.

Mr Frere joined Desmarais in 1981 when the pair created Pargesa to manage a stake in Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas (Suisse), a subsidiary of the French bank now known as BNP Paribas SA. GBL has been listed on the stock market since 1956 and controlled by the Frere and Desmarais families since 1990.

Mr Frere's friendships with kings, presidents, prime ministers and the captains of industry have helped him build his fortune as has a sense of timing as well as patience. Born in the Belgian village of Fontaine-l'Eveque, he started his career in the family's nail and chain business in 1947 before embarking on a career of acquisitions through a strategy that often consisted of building up stakes in companies such as minerals and pigments maker Imerys over a long period of time.

Mr Frere's investments have also put him at the center of some of the biggest deals in France. He took a stake in Belgian oil company Petrofina SA in the early 1980s, which later turned him into one of Total's biggest shareholders after the French oil company swallowed Petrofina and Elf Aquitaine SA.

The same scenario played out with Mr Frere's investment in Suez SA, which merged with Gaz de France SA to become GDF Suez SA, one of the biggest utilities in the world.

Mr Frere remained in close touch with managers of the companies in which he invested. He used to call GDF Suez CEO Gerard Mestrallet once a week and last year attended the funeral in Paris of former Total CEO Christophe de Margerie after his death in a plane crash.

"Albert Frere, the faithful partner of my family for more than thirty years and my long-time colleague in the board of directors of GBL, has decided to leave," said Paul Desmarais Jr in announcing the departure of Mr Frere.

Mr Frere's "extraordinary business sense" allowed GBL, which has net assets of 15.2 billion euros, to become one of the top listed holding companies, said Desmarais Jr, who is chairman and CEO of Power Corp of Canada.

In recent years, GBL has lowered investment in energy and utility companies including GDF Suez, Suez Environnement and Total, while supporting the merger of cement makers Lafarge SA and Holcim Ltd.

GBL has a 3.2 per cent stake in French oil giant Total, a 21.1 percent stake in Laffarge, 2.4 per cent in French gas company GDF Suez, and a 7.5 per cent of Pernod Ricard, according to its website.