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Netherlands: Enter Fortis – the fourth force

The sale of ABN Amro's merchant banking subsidiary, MeesPierson, has long been expected in the Netherlands. Selling it to the Dutch-Belgian group, Fortis Investments, has raised a few eyebrows, but is it part of a wider strategy that Dutch financial institutions are following to position themselves for the coming of the euro? Antony Currie reports.

A question mark has hung over the role of MeesPierson since the merger of its parent banks, ABN and Amro in 1991. Its constituent parts, Mees & Hope and Pierson, Heldring and Pierson, were left untouched until they too were merged in 1993; but the newly created subsidiary retained its own corporate culture and supervisory board, and was often seen as competing with its owner. Something had to change, whether through integration or sale. Yet the press release that finally announced its future was a piece of supreme understatement.

Released at 7.30pm on October 1, just in time to make the morning papers, the fax simply stated that ABN Amro "has been approached by a number of parties" interested in buying its 275-year-old subsidiary. This coincided with ABN Amro's own strategic review of its child, the release said, adding that more information would follow "if developments so require".

They did. By the end of the week Belgian-Dutch group Fortis Investments had signed a letter of intent and gone straight into eight weeks of due diligence. Fortis, which owns VSB Bank ­ the fifth largest Dutch bank by shareholders' equity ­ was not everyone's first guess, being mainly a retail bank and insurance outfit.

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