City & Business: More to vex Lonrho than Tiny's expenses

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TINY ROWLAND'S attack on his own company's spin doctor is a fresh scene in an extraordinary saga which has now descended from mere farce to theatre of the absurd. In any other country the feud between Lonrho's joint chief executives, Rowland and Dieter Bock, would have been resolved long ago. But in a curiously British way, the row bubbles on. Last week after a board meeting in which Rowland uttered not one word, the board issued a statement which managed to pretend that everything was tickety boo.

This is despite hostilities which have gone on for almost a year now. It was 11 months ago that Rowland remarked of his colleague, 'Frankly, he hasn't a clue,' and the relationship has if anything soured further since then.

The revelation from the Bock camp last week that Rowland costs the company a reported pounds 5 1/2 m was supposed to be the final nail in his coffin. By Thursday the obituaries had all but been written, the last rites intoned, the cliches reached for ('swashbuckling', 'buccaneering'). Researchers frantically tried to establish precisely why Ted Heath called him an 'unacceptable face of capitalism' all those years ago.

But while Fleet Street stood by the empty graveside, an undaunted Tiny was hopping into his silver Bentley to face another ordinary day at the office.

Actually, that headline-grabbing pounds 5 1/2 m, even if true, does not bear much scrutiny. The pounds 2m annual cost of his private jet is an extravagance, but if there is any business leader who needs one, it is the head of Lonrho, which has 600 subsidiaries across the globe.

Then there are the unexplained pounds 1m of personal expenses related to the winning of international business and the pounds 200,000 paid by Lonrho to educate the dependents of African politicians (that's equivalent to 20 places at Eton). This may well be necessary for doing business in some corners of the world. If so, it is hardly fair to apportion the cost to Rowland personally.

Indeed, if the total expense of the chief of any multinational were calculated, I doubt there would be much change from a few million. There are good reasons why Rowland should leave Lonrho, but they are to be found on the dismal revenues section of the profit and loss account, not in expenses.

The whole affair looks like a very clumsy move by Bock, or those working in his name. A sort of peace descends once again in the Lonrho boardroom. But to borrow a phrase from another battleground, this is very definitely not a permanent ceasefire.