BOOK REVIEW / Unacceptable faces of a Tiny empire: Tiny Rowland: A Rebel Tycoon by Tom Bower, Heinemann pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
AFTER 600 pages of biography, I am not sure that even Tom Bower sees Tiny Rowland with complete clarity. He has certainly provided the raw material for any number of psychological hypotheses to explain an amazing life. More seriously, he has gathered evidence for allegations about Rowland's honesty in running Lonrho which ought to stimulate investigations by law enforcement agencies in a number of countries.

To my mind, much follows from the fate of Rowland's parents, his Dutch mother and German father, who were interned twice by the British, in 1914 and 1939. On both occasions his father's business was lost. His mother died painfully and slowly of cancer in an Isle of Man camp in 1944. This is presumably why, in many moods, Rowland seems to hate the British, in particular the ruling class he has never been invited to join, though he continues to live in Britain and has surrounded himself with Old Etonians. Tycoons are driven by greed, or by a lust for power, but in this case we can add revenge to the mix.

Rowland went out to Southern Rhodesia in 1948 to seek his fortune. Today, after a lifetime's endeavour, many of Lonrho's African businesses are virtually worthless but Rowland's political influence is enormous, as his recent brokering of a peace settlement in Mozambique demonstrates. Early on, he invented a way of doing business which appeared to work well. He showed black leaders that he believed in them and in their poor countries; he invested just as conventional white businesses were withdrawing. His rewards were lucrative, at least in local currency terms. But Lonrho, his British-owned Rhodesian company, also did business in white South Africa. Rhodesia found herself at war with her black neighbours and somehow hard currency had to be found, despite strict exchange restrictions, and sent to London. Rowland was thus forced into ambiguity, evasion, bribery.

Companies run by aggressive entrepreneurs in this way have certain characteristics in common. Effective accounting and financial control are seen as a nuisance rather than as necessary conditions for success. Good internal communication is impossible. Strong colleagues are dangerous. Instead, nonentities are employed on high salaries and generous perquisites, knowledge about the company's affairs is restricted, and published financial information is impenetrable. So the brilliant deals of the tycoon are constantly undermined by the sheer inefficiency of his business, even if nobody notices or minds about unethical behaviour.

In London financial markets, they do, on the whole, mind. Rowland brought his Rhodesian methods to London and in due course stimulated a revolt by those directors who were not his confidantes. He also earned the condemnation of the Prime Minister of the day, Edward Heath, who described Lonrho in a famous phrase as the 'unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism'. The dissident directors were lead by the upright Sir Basil Smallpeice. Some of the best passages here show how Rowland's aggression, unfairness, cunning and disregard for convention overcame his punctilious, decent, flat-footed opponents. The British, Rowland must have thought, were trying to take his business away from him as they had from his parents. Only this time, he was able to fight back and make sure they failed.

On the next occasion, however, the outcome was different. The British government, in bizarre alliance with the Egyptian Al Fayeds, succeeded in preventing Rowland from gaining control of the department stores group that owned Harrods. Rowland needed Harrods as a source of hard currency earnings and as a visiting card when calling on political leaders outside Africa. If you tell the President of Mexico about your sugar estates in Mauritius he is unlikely to be impressed, whereas Harrods means something. It was not to be. Rowland was shamefully mistreated by ministers, by the Office of Fair Trading and by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. His almost superhuman efforts failed.

I had expected that Tiny Rowland's last battle would be this book, which attempts to take his reputation away from him. Yet thus far there has been little protest and no writs. Has Rowland, at 75 years of age, finally achieved sufficient tranquillity to accept the praise and ignore the criticism?