The history of Generale Bank, which took over the banking activities of Société Générale de Belgique, is closely bound up with Belgium’s economic and industrial history through its role as both an issuing bank and an investment bank, and its position as the largest financial institution in the country.
The origins of Generale Bank can be traced back to 1822, when the Algemeene Nederlandsche Maatschappij ter Begunstiging van de Volksvlijt (General Netherlands Company) was set up in Brussels with a specific mandate to promote the development of agriculture, manufacturing and trade. Its founder, Dutch King Willem I of Orange, conferred on the bank a national remit by granting it the right to print banknotes and appointing it as State cashier. When Belgium declared its independence from the rest of the Netherlands, the bank took the name of Société Générale de Belgique.
Rapidly establishing a network of branches in all the main towns across Belgium, Société Générale de Belgique became the country’s leading savings bank, a status which it retained until the founding of the Algemene Spaar- en Lijfrentekas (ASLK) in 1865. Thereafter it adopted a policy of setting up what were known as ‘sponsored’ banks, independent financial institutions such as the Banque d’Anvers, which operated under the general oversight of the Société Générale de Belgique.
A ‘mixed banking’ institution serving Belgian industry worldwide
From 1834 onwards, Société Générale de Belgique focused mainly on the development of heavy industry, notably railways, coalmining, metals mining and power plants. It combined the activities of a deposit-taking bank with merchant banking business – i.e. investing in industry – thus becoming the first modern mixed bank. It achieved major expansion in Europe, through the railroad company Société Belge de Chemins de Fer and the Banque Belge pour L’étranger; in Russia; in China, through the Société d’Etude de Chemins de Fer en China which undertook studies and planning for the construction of the Peking – Hankow railway; in Latin America through the Banque Brésilienne Italo-Belge and the Société Belgo-Argentine de Navigation (shipping company); and in Africa through the Banque du Congo Belge.
In the wake of the worldwide stock market and financial crisis, Belgian legislation passed in 1934 decreed the breakup of ‘mixed banks’. Société Générale de Belgique transferred its banking business to a new subsidiary, Banque de la Société Générale de Belgique, which was re-named Société Générale de Banque in 1965 and then Générale de Banque/Generale Bank in 1985. The bank’s network then saw extremely rapid growth. In 1998, Generale Bank was acquired by the Fortis Group.