Groupe Bruxelles Lambert S.A.

Publicly-traded Groupe Bruxelles Lambert may just be a holding company with only a few industrial investments but, boy those investment stakes are worth billions and so are the two fellows who control GBL: Canadian Paul Desmarais Sr. and Belgian Albert Frere.

Cycling across Canada I became familiar with Power Corporation of Canada, a big holding company. Why? Through subsidiary Power Financial Corporation (2004 revenues of $19 billion) it owns several of Canada's largest insurance, investment and mutual fund companies. Chairman Paul Desmarais Sr. controls the company.

I became familiar with the Albert Frere name back in 1995 while visiting the head office of Bank Brussels Lambert in Brussels as GBL held a 12.5% stake. Since my 1995 visit the bank was bought by ING, the Dutch bank, in 1997.

While visiting companies in Geneva, Switzerland back in 2002 I dropped by Pargesa S.A., the parent holding company for Brussels-based GBL (controlled by Paul Desmarais and Albert Frere) only to be told neither gentlemen had offices there. But, Swiss-based Pargesa is itself controlled by Parjointco N.V., a Dutch-based holding company. Do you know who shares 50/50 ownership of Parjointco? Power Corporation of Canada and Group Frere-Bourgeois/CNP/NPM.

This is truly hilarious. GBL is a Belgium-based holding company (normally holding companies ARE the parent company). Yet it's controlled by another company in Switzerland (Pargesa) which is in turn controlled by another company in the Netherlands (Parjointco) which, is in turn controlled by two entities controlled by the billionaire boys (Paul Desmarais Sr. and Albert Frere). This is transparency? It sounds more like a way for individuals to weasel out of paying their fair share in taxes.

Anyway, here are GBL's major holdings: 3.7% of Total, a French oil company with revenues of 122 billion euros, 25.1% of Bertelsmann, the giant German media company with revenues of 17.5 billion euros, 7.1% of Suez, the French water & energy biggie with 40 billion euros in revenues and finally, Imerys, the Paris-based mineral processing company with 2.8 billion euros in revenues.

Boy, this is weird, the address I have for the head office of GBL brings me back to the same building I visited 10 years earlier when it was Bank Brussels Lambert. Now it's ING. But, there's no building directory as ING seems to be the sole occupant. I inquire at the ING reception desk and ask if Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL) has offices here. The answer is yes. I say I'm visiting the company and get put on the phone with a woman from GBL. I explain how I mailed a letter of introduction a month ago to Managing Director Gerald Frere and wondered who end up with it and would someone have a few minutes to talk to me. The woman says several people are out of the office. I tell her I'll check back. Returning a few days later the same scenario is played out with a woman telling me over the phone that nobody is around. More than a week later and on my last day in Brussels I return. A woman on the phone gives me the same song and dance about nobody being around. I inquire as to how many people work in the office and am told "its not that many". Then if it's "not that many" why can't anybody tell me what happened to my letter sent here to Mr. Frere and why couldn't someone spare a few minutes to answer my questions? According to the woman Mr. Frere spends the majority of the time working out of offices in the Louvain Foundation, located about 20 miles away in the university town of Louvain.

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