City: Tiny difference

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The Independent Online
TOM BOWER'S double-fronted and much hyped assault on Lonrho and Tiny Rowland - first the book and then the TV documentary - proved in the end to be something of a damp squib. There were allegations and revelations galore, but the overall picture seemed familiar and unsurprising. Most of what was said about Tiny was either vaguely known or at least half suspected. Tiny was confirmed as a maverick tycoon who runs his empire along highly unorthodox lines in the manner of a personal fiefdom, but didn't we know that already? Certainly there was nothing there to compare with the Bower book on Maxwell, or the Panorama programme that followed it. In that case, the effect was devastating; you knew Maxwell was doomed. Lonrho's share price, by contrast, remained largely oblivious to the latest hostile foray into Tiny's affairs - it closed the week virtually unchanged.

Like many who have taken on Tiny before, Mr Bower has drawn blood, but he is far from finishing the old buccaneer off. The most remarkable material centred on allegations that Tiny has oiled the wheels of his African operations with special payments and favours. A former Zambian foreign minister describes how, while being flown over the African bush in Tiny's jet, Tiny gazes out of the window and says: 'There's not a single leader down there that I cannot buy with money.' The only surprising thing about this statement is that Tiny should have said it at all; certainly most people always assumed that's how he operated. How else do you do business in Africa?

So what did Dieter Bock, the German financier who has bought half of Tiny's shares in Lonrho - naively in some people's eyes - think of it all? To him it's history. There's nothing in the Bower book he didn't either know or suspect - or so he's telling associates - and none of it will affect his quest to clean up Lonrho and bring the company into the late twentieth century.

That doesn't mean there are not serious problems looming for Mr Bock as he attempts to grapple with his newly-won position as joint chief executive. There are. The rise in the gold and platinum prices should certainly help ease Lonrho's plight, but make no mistake about it; Lonrho is still deep in the mire and pulling it out is going to be a long hard haul. Tiny's larger-than-life, swashbuckling style, his great fights with the British establishment, and his power-broking with African leaders, always made Lonrho seem a much more substantial enterprise than in truth it was. Lonrho's mountain of debt is supported by a relatively small and fragile edifice. What there is, especially in Africa, depends largely on Tiny and his largesse. Nobody else truly understands it. Others who looked at the possibility of refinancing Lonrho - including the Malaysian-based trading group Genting - came to the view that the company needed a much larger injection of cash than that eventually provided by Mr Bock. Meanwhile Mr Rowland shows few signs of loosening his grip on the empire. By all accounts, he's as active now with African leaders - present and potential - as he ever was.