Italian tycoon Carlo De Benedetti is bidding for a controlling stake in Belgium's Societe Generale de Belgique, a conglomerate that owns a huge chunk of the national economy and has stakes in 1,200 firms worldwide.
But his bid was unwelcome and will be fought, Rene Lamy, the chairman of the "Generale," as Belgians call the 165-year-old company, told a news conference Monday.
Mystery buying last summer and again in recent days of stock in the company, which is popularly viewed as almost as much a part of Belgium's Establishment as the royal family, had aroused concern over a possible foreign takeover.
Lamy said Societe Generale would fight the bid by De Benedetti, chairman of Olivetti, by printing more shares and selling them to loyal stockholders.
"If he had come to us as a friend, we would probably have been able to do business with him," Lamy said.
It was unclear, however, whether Societe Generale would be allowed to proceed with the issuance of new shares because Belgian securities law prohibits such actions when taken in response to a takeover offer.
De Benedetti telephoned Lamy on Sunday to tell him that he had secretly bought 18.6% of Societe Generale's shares.
Lamy said De Benedetti was launching a public offer through his French holding company, Compagnie Europeenes Reunies (Cerus), for another 15% of the Societe Generale and wanted to be the controlling shareholder.
The price of the transaction was not disclosed. Societe Generale's total assets are estimated at 100 billion Belgian francs, or about $2.8 billion.
The Finance Ministry later disclosed that De Benedetti planned to arrive in Brussels today for talks with Finance Minister Mark Eyskens and Philippe Maystadt, the economics minister and vice premier. No details were announced.
De Benedetti's expanding empire includes stakes in firms from Italy's leading pasta maker, Buitoni, to French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent.
Speculation that a mystery buyer was snapping up the stock of Societe Generale soared last week, and trading volume in its shares smashed all records on the Brussels Bourse.
Lamy said there was no personal objection to De Benedetti, the 53-year-old financier from Turin who transformed Olivetti, a sleepy typewriter maker, into the world's second-biggest producer of personal computers after International Business Machines. But, he said, "the acquisition of a controlling interest by Mr. De Benedetti is neither in the interest of Societe Generale's shareholders nor in the interest of the group's companies."
By boosting its share capital by 57% and selling new shares to cooperative stockholders, Societe Generale aims to make it harder for De Benedetti to acquire the voting control he seeks.
Analysts say a share-holding interest of the size De Benedetti seeks often assures a seat on a company's board and typically gives the shareholder a veto over major decisions.
The price of De Benedetti's offer has not been disclosed and Societe Generale shares were suspended on the Brussels Bourse on Monday after a request from the Finance Ministry.
But to match Friday's closing price of 3,250 francs ($96), De Benedetti would have to pay around $390 million for the additional 15% holding he seeks.