Frere raises ’friendly’ stake in Lafarge

Frere raises ’friendly’ stake in Lafarge
Published: 24 May 2006

Lafarge’s future was in further question last night after the investment group run byBelgian financier Albert Frere raised its holding in the France-based cement maker to 10 per cent.  Groupe Bruxelles Lambert told the French market regulator it reserved the right for its stake to evolve, suggesting that GBL wants to take a larger interest in Lafarge. People close to the building materials group believe that GBL could increase its holding to as much as 15 per cent. 
 
Brussels-based GBL said it did not seek immediate representation on Lafarge’s board, although speculation exists that Mr Frere will call for a role in the management of the world’s largest maker of cement.  He is expected to influence Lafarge’s strategy as it carries out a restructuring programmed aimed at reducing costs.
 
People close to Lafarge suggest that Mr Frere would put pressure on the company to increase significantly its Euro160m, three-year cost-cutting target.  The French cement company has seen its performance slip in recent years, relative to competitors. 
 
The investment group has quietly been bolstering its stake in Lafarge since revealing in January that it held 6 per cent. GBL insists that the holding is friendly and stable.  Lafarge confirms that GBL had reassured it of this.  Mr Frere is understood to have had at least three meetings with the company’s management since he first took a stake. 
 
Bruno Lafont, who was promoted to chief executive in January after Lafarge reported an unexpected drop in earnings last year, has launched an internal review of the group’s businesses which is expected to lead to a series of disposals. 
 
Some speculate that once the restructuring programme begins to deliver results Mr Frere could press Lafarge to deliver big acquisitions or a transformational merger.  The 80-year-old billionaire is often seen as a catalyst for change in the companies he targets.