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Italian Says He's Not Seeking to Buy Out Belgian Conglomerate

January 20, 1988|From Reuters

BRUSSELS — Italian financier Carlo De Benedetti reassured Belgians on Tuesday that he was not trying to take over their country's largest company but said he wanted a decisive say in the running of Societe Generale de Belgique.

His whirlwind public relations tour to Brussels followed news Monday that he had snapped up 18.6% of Societe Generale and planned a public bid for more shares in the commercial and industrial holding company.

But after telling Finance Minister Mark Eyskens that he was prepared to keep his stake below the 25% needed to block major corporate decisions, the Turin tycoon said later that he wanted a decisive influence over its affairs.

"We never said we wanted to take control of the company. We have said we want to be the predominant shareholder with a position of control, which is completely different.

"The way in which we are going to exercise our position as predominant shareholder is going to be the fixing of the strategic objectives of the company and the choice of top management," De Benedetti said.

Societe Generale is the linchpin of the Belgian economy, with interests in more than 1,200 companies worldwide. De Benedetti's advances prompted the popular daily De Morgen to write: "All hands on deck. . . . SOS Generale SOS."

Societe Generale Chairman Rene Lamy spoke of "financial piracy." But his defenses suffered a blow overnight when a Brussels court temporarily blocked moves to increase the company's capital by more than half and issue the new shares to friendly buyers.

Seeks Friendly Investors

De Benedetti, chairman of the Italian computer and business machine giant Olivetti, had sought the injunction, claiming that the capital increase broke Belgian takeover rules.

"The operation was clearly absurd because one cannot conceive of carrying out such a big operation on a Sunday night to benefit people one hasn't even found," De Benedetti said.

Lamy said the new shares had not yet been placed, but he added that he was confident of finding stable and friendly investors who would side with the present board and keep control of the company in Brussels.

De Benedetti declined to give any details of his bid for a further stake in "Generale," as it is known by Belgians, because it was still being studied by the Banking Commission, which regulates takeovers.

Commission President Walter Van Gerven told a local television station that his agency was considering whether De Benedetti's public offer of Societe Generale shares was submitted to it in the proper fashion and would make a decision in the next few days.

Lamy said Monday that De Benedetti was seeking an additional 15% in the company through the public offer.

Seeking Cooperation

Finance Minister Eyskens, who had asked the Brussels Bourse (stock exchange) on Monday to suspend trading in Societe Generale shares for 48 hours because of the turmoil surrounding De Benedetti's secret share purchases, appeared reassured by their one-hour meeting.

"I understood that Mr. De Benedetti does not want confrontation at all, but is seeking a form of cooperation," he told reporters.

De Benedetti, 53, is aiming to create a financial and industrial conglomerate on a European scale to cash in on the abolition of trade barriers in the 12-nation European Community planned for 1992.

He is the man who transformed the sleepy typewriter firm of Ing C. Olivetti & C. S.p.A. into the world's second-biggest producer of personal computers after International Business Machines.

De Benedetti owns Italy's leading pasta maker, Buitoni, and a stake in French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent.

He has used his French holding company, Compagnies Reunies Europeennes, to build up his interests outside Italy.

Societe Generale has significant stakes in Belgium's leading bank, Generale de Banque, and a clutch of insurance companies and other firms in financial services.

It has shares in the engineering concern Tractebel S.A., Luxembourg steelmaker Arbed S.A., arms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale Herstal S.A., as well as interests in mining, metal processing, shipping, transport and diamonds.

Its net non-consolidated profit in 1986 was $150 million, but analysts say those figures do not reflect the profitability of all the companies in which it has a stake.

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