Robbed of its heritage, Belgium's aristocracy licks its wounds

Lord Bernard T' Serstevens in front of his castle in Belgian Haspengouw.
By Piet Depuydt

The T' Serstevens family has been a shareholder in what is now Fortis for longer than the state of Belgium has existed - a tradition that came to an abrupt end with the dismantlement and sale of Fortis. 'We've been robbed.'

Honor meus in altis, reads the T' Serstevens family's coat of arms: my honour in the highest. Bernard T' Serstevens had it engraved on the gatehouse of his 18th century castle in the Haspengouw area of Belgium.

"I sent a new year's card to Maurice Lippens just like I do every year," he says. Lippens, the chairman of Fortis, is a distant cousin. "But it would have been hypocritical to wish him a happy 2009." So he wished him good health instead. "He's going to need it now that he's looking at a whole year of legal claims."

The King's blessing

In the living rooms of the family castle, on a 200 hectares domain near the town of Sint-Truiden, T' Serstevens opens a bound book of the history of Fortis.

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An original AG share issued to King Willem I of the Netherlands months before the Belgian revolution of 1830.

In 1824, textile merchant Francois Rittweger and banker Jacques Coghen founded the life insurance company AG Life, followed by AG Fire six years later. Not long after that Bernard T' Sterstevens' ancestors, together with several other families from the French-speaking aristocracy in Flanders, became major shareholders in AG. At the time, what is now Belgium was ruled by King Willem I of the Netherlands, who encouraged local entrepreneurship in the financial sector to keep it out of French or British hands.

For the whole of the 19th century the two AG companies remained the exclusive property of a select group of aristocratic families. Willem I himself owned shares in AG Fire - which yielded annual dividends of up to 15 percent - and the King's family held on to the stock until 1870. A century later, the life and fire insurance companies merged to form AG (Assurances Generales), the predecessor of Fortis.

The aristocracy maintained a close relationship with Belgium's financial and industrial elite throughout the 20th century. The sudden dismantlement of Fortis late last year was a shock of historic proportions. "A number of them have been ruined," says T' Serstevens.

Never sell

According to the Brussels commercial registry, Bernard T' Serstevens and his seven children today own 3.8 million Fortis shares, or 0.1 percent of Fortis' capital. In April 2007, when Fortis shares reached almost 30 euros, the family owned 94 million euros worth of Fortis shares. Last Friday, Fortis was worth 1.46 euros. The T' Serstevens family lost 88.7 million euros in the Fortis fiasco.

All that time the T' Serstevens's never sold. Neither did most of the other aristocratic families. Jamais. "It was simply not done to sell a heritage that has been passed on from one generation to the next," the elderly Bernard T' Serstevens explains.

'It was simply not done to sell a heritage that has been passed on from one generation to the next'

Bernard T' Serstevens

For a long time there was no reason to sell. By keeping their shares in a safe the T' Serstevens collected a very comfortable dividend: in the 2003-2007 period it came to an average of 3.7 million euros per year. Understandably, when the Fortis board announced in June 2008 that it was scrapping the midterm dividend - just like that - it led to a storm of protest from the aristocratic shareholders.

The families had never let Fortis down. Everytime new shares were issued they bought more. "It was an act of trust," says viscount Jean de Jonghe d’Ardoye, who is related to the T' Serstevens and whose family lost almost 15 million euros in Fortis in the past year. Diversifying or risk-spreading simply never occurred to them. "We put everything in one basket," says the 74-year-old viscount. He admits this may have been unwise. "I studied in the US and I learned from the Rockefellers that in that case you had better guard your shares day and night."

One of their own

Not everybody was so faithful. Of the original thirteen families only five families remain: T’ Serstevens, Lippens, de Jonghe d'Ardoye, de Selliers and de Broux. Together they own roughly 0.5 percent of Fortis. Fortis' fast growth in the 1990s gradually diminished the families' influence. Ironically, it was Maurice Lippens - one of their own - who set those wheels in motion.

Lippens, who according to company records owns 3.7 million Fortis shares today, was the financial whizz who shook up the sluggish AG group in the 1980s. "We were afraid of him," admits T’ Serstevens.

Lippens appealed to the families to strengthen his hold on the company. In 1987 he got his nephew to join the board of directors and to rally the support of the families to ward off a hostile takeover of AG. It was the time of Carlos de Benedetti's raid on the Société Générale de Belgique, the holding company that owned 18 percent of AG at the time. There were rumours that the French insurance company Axa was eyeing AG's insurance activities.

By the end of the 1990s the era of the Belgian nobility was over. AG had merged with the Dutch insurance company Amev to become Fortis; it had bought the ASLK and NMKN savings banks from the Belgian government, and it bought G-Bank from under the nose of the Dutch ABN Amro bank. In this new, international structure, the old families seemed like an anachronism.

'We probably realised too late that Fortis was no longer a family company''

Baron Philippe Casier

In 2004, the last of the old aristocratic shareholders, Philippe Speeckaert, resigned from the board of Fortis. "My mandate allowed us to keep one vote on the board of directors," says Speeckaert, who represented the de Broux family, "but our power was long gone."

The downfall of Fortis has been dramatic, says Speeckaert. "I know families who have to sell their houses and castles."

Betrayed

Chevalier Alec de Selliers de Moranville is equally bitter. His family is related to the owners of the chemical company Solvay, which owns 15.7 million Fortis shares. "We always came through at every major share emission," says Alec. "Without the families the merger with Amev, which was much bigger than Fortis at the time, could never have happened. But we were simply discarded."

Attempts to merge the interests of the old French-speaking aristocracy with those of the nouveaux riches like the Flemish investor Piet Van Waeyenberge never panned out. Van Waeyenberge and a group of other investors acquiered circa 2 percent in Fortis at the end of the last century. "There were many contacts," says Speeckeart, "but nothing ever came of them." The mentalities were just too different.

"Flemish investors are rich and dynamic," says Speeckaert. "They are active in industrial companies and they saw Fortis as a kind of savings account. But to us, the French-speaking aristocratic families, Fortis was our main source of income."

"We probably realised too late that Fortis was no longer a family company," says baron Philippe Casier, a former director of the technical installatioins company Fabricom. "The company's risk profile had completely changed." He remembers how many of his relatives were blinded by the steady flow of money from Fortis.

"We were very content," confirms Speeckaert. An investment in Fortis was said to be safer and more lucrative than government bonds. Speeckaert smiles when he remembers those days: "Nothing was more lucrative than Fortis."

Now that everything is gone Speeckaert and the others are being blamed because they lobbied for the highest possible price after the dismantlement of Fortis. It was said the aristocrats acted like ordinary speculators.

T’ Serstevens is indignant. "We have never played the stock market. I have always held on to my insurances." Then, with a tired sigh, he says: "I'm not interested anymore. As soon as the share hits 2 or 3 euros I'm dumping everything."

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