Albert Frere, the Belgian entrepreneur, has increased his stake in Lafarge to more than eight per cent in a move that throws into question the future of the world’s largest cement group.
Mr Frere first took a 6.5 per cent stake in Lafarge in January, sparking rumours of management changes or possible bids for the building materials group. He is often seen as a catalyst for change in the companies he targets.
Albert Frere has been one of the biggest investors in Suez, the power and water group which last month announced a surprise plan to merge with the French utility Gaz de France, a deal which he has long supported.
The increased holding was registered publicly with French regulators.
Lafarge said yesterday it viewed Mr Frere’s enlarged stake "positively", as it helped to reinforce the group’s share price performance. Since the announcement of Mr Frere’s initial investment, at the time worth about Euros 1bn, Lafarge shares have risen 12 per cent.
It is understood Mr Frere has reassured the group’s new chief executive, Bruno Lafont, and its chairman, Bertrand Collomb, that his holding is friendly and long-term.
So far, he has not sought a seat on the board. But speculation continues that GBL, the Brussels-based investment group he controls jointly with the Quebec-based Desmarais family, wants to increase its stake further and take an active role in management.
Mr Lafont, who was promoted 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.
He has also unveiled a restructuring of the group’s management and reporting systems which will be in place by the end of the year, and pledged to increase operating margins by one percentage point over three years, which implies a cost reduction of Euros 760m.