`Mr Lonrho' is still the star of the show

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In the end, he was not to be president, but Tiny Rowland's regal presence dominated Lonrho's annual meeting yesterday none the less.

At the end of a stormy and emotional four-hour affair, even the directors arrayed against him on the platform of the Barbican Hall in the City applauded when a small shareholder took to a microphone to propose a vote of thanks for his years of service to the company.

Indeed Sir John Leahy, chairman of the board that sacked Tiny a fortnight ago, admitted during one exchange with a shareholder that "there is only one Tiny Rowland and there is no one on the board with Mr Rowland's experience in Africa".

In what may have been a first for the chairman of a public company, Sir John also confessed at one point: "I am not a businessman." He did not need to be yesterday. Instead his skills as a former diplomat came into play as he attempted to chair a meeting at which passions ran high.

At the centre of the storm, in an aisle seat in the body of the vast hall, sat the cause of it all: impeturbable, smilingly receiving the small shareholders who came to shake his hand and in some cases, literally, sit at his feet.

The support for him in the hall was overwhelming. Shareholder after shareholder delivered emotional eulogies to him: his years of experience, his service to the company and to Africa. More than one demonstrated how linked in their minds he was with the company by calling him, mistakenly, Mr Lonrho.

When finally, Mr Lonrho rose to speak to the resolution creating the post of president that he had expected to fill, the noisy hall fell silent.

In a faltering voice that betrayed his 78 years, he thanked the shareholders for coming in such numbers. "Whether you vote in favour or whether you oppose me doesn't really matter to me; my only interest is the future of Lonrho."

He joked that after 34 years on the platform at Lonrho agms, he was now sitting comfortably in the hall with fellow shareholders, but gesturing at the platform, he reminded his audience of the power he once wielded.

"Every one of you there was appointed by me, except for two," he said, leaving the implied accusation of betrayal hanging in the air. But in an implicit recognition of his advancing age and frailty, Mr Rowland then yielded to a friend, John Beveridge, to make a speech on his behalf.

When the resolution was put, the hall voted in favour by 73 per cent to 26 per cent. Even if those votes had not been swamped by proxies from institutional investors, the motion would not have been carried, as it required a 75 per cent majority.

Through all the drama, Mr Rowland's adversary, Dieter Bock, sat impassive at the chairman's left hand. As Tiny made his potentate-like exit, surrounded by television cameras, flash-guns and reporters' notebooks, the ignored Mr Bock may have reflected that, although he had won the day, Tiny was still the star of the Lonrho show.

"This is the beginning of the matter, not the end," the old campaigner said. "I don't accept the defeat; I have just lost a skirmish today."