The beginnings of Fortis (1990-1997)

At this stage we should go back a little way to describe the beginnings of the Belgian- Dutch bancassurance group Fortis, which in 1998 would take over Générale de Banque.

In 1990, the AG (Brussels) and Amev (Utrecht) insurance groups signed an agreement which put the seal on their alliance. The three fundamental principles of the agreement were: to maintain the autonomy of the two companies; merge all their assets; and unify their senior management. The idea of a merger pure and simple of the two groups had been set aside, as the issue of where to locate the headquarters of the resulting entity might have derailed the negotiations. In 1990 the number of staff employed by the new group stood at 19,352, with 4,032 in Belgium, 7,790 in the Netherlands, 1,939 in other European countries, 5,082 in the United States and 689 in Australia and in Asia.

The implementation of a joint structure, to be named Fortis, was ratified at a General Meeting of the shareholders of the AG Group on 3 December 1990. On 12 December, the full documents finalising the agreement were signed in Utrecht and Brussels. The twelfth largest European insurer was thus created. It was the first cross-border link-up in the European financial sector.

Fortis quickly took steps to become the number one institution in bancassurance in the Benelux countries. However, historically AG and Amev were two groups which specialised in insurance. It had only been recently, and in a small way, that they had succeeded in entering the banking business. In 1990 in the Netherlands Amev had purchased VSB Bank (Verenigde Spaarbanken).This company had emerged from the reorganisation in 1981- 1983 of the independent mutual savings banks, the oldest of which was founded in 1784 as Maatschappij tot Nut van t Algemeen (Company for the General Interest). In the 1980s, VSB had evolved to become a universal bank.

During its first years of business, the Fortis group rapidly grew its banking business, both in Belgium, acquiring Caisse Générale d Épargne et de Retraite (CGER), and in the Netherlands, where in late 1991 VSB took over Nutsspaarbank, based in The Hague, the third largest mutual savings bank in the Netherlands.

In September 1995, CGER took over Société Nationale de Crédit et d Investissement (SNCI). However, the Fortis group failed that year in its attempt to purchase Crédit Lyonnais Bank Nederland. As we have seen it was Générale de Banque which carried off the prize.

In 1996, Fortis acquired MeesPierson, the second oldest private bank in the world after Monte Paschi di Siena. It was the fruit of a merger of two old prestigious merchant banks. One, Mees & Hope, was the result of the 1962 amalgamation of two banking houses founded in 1720 and 1762. The other, Pierson, Heldring & Pierson, was founded in 1875. Pierson Heldring & Pierson had been taken over in 1975 by AMRO. A little later, Mees &

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