Profile: Trader with the iron grip: Tiny Rowland fought and defeated the British establishment, but the Lonrho tycoon was to remain an outsider, writes Richard Thomson

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The Independent Online
ON ONE of his frequent trips to Africa, Tiny Rowland was accompanied on his GulfStream jet by a senior African politician. Gazing out of the window at the vast land below, Rowland murmured to his companion: 'These African leaders are so corrupt that there's not a single one of them whom I could not buy.'

The quote typifies the negative view of Rowland, the view given so much publicity last week by the publication of Tom Bower's biography and the television programme based on it. The picture is of a vain, power-hungry autocrat, a Nazi sympathiser in early life who, later on, deliberately chose Africa as his area of operation because he found the politicians so biddable and power so easy to buy.

This Rowland is icy calm in a crisis, but given to sudden and extreme emotions such as the way he pulled at his mother's body in grief when she died of cancer in a British internment hospital during the Second World War. He is dangerously charming and dangerously energetic; he is charismatic, vengeful, ruthless and ferociously ambitious. He recognises few rules, running Lonrho as if it was his private property and no one - not shareholders, fellow directors nor the authorities - had a right to know what he did with it.

An alternative view was given by Rowland himself last weekend. Declaring that Bower had 'invented' the character in his biography, Tiny told his own life story at length in the Observer.

He presents his membership of the Hitler Youth when a teenager as the result of youthful high spirits and peer pressure. He was badly treated by the British authorities during the war but bounced back afterwards as a businessman. He saved the clapped-out mining company, Lonrho, and turned it into a profitable conglomerate.

He was a hero of African development, making a crucial contribution to the wealth and stability of the continent. His famous battles against his own board, the Fayed brothers and even the British government were always someone else's fault and were never sought by him. Above all, he sees himself as exceptionally talented, a natural leader whose rise to wealth and power was inevitable.

Where in all this is the real Rowland? One clue almost certainly lies in his determination to keep his grip on Lonrho, and his constant skirmishing with the British establishment. It is, indeed, the theme that comes through most clearly in his own account of his life. There is good reason to believe it comes from a deep hostility to many British characteristics. It is probably no coincidence that the man he has finally sold his Lonrho shares to, Dieter Bock, is German.

On an emotional level, there are understandable family reasons for this. Rowland's father was German, and proudly patriotic. His mother was half-British and half-Dutch. As an able businessman, Wilhelm Fuhrhop, the father, took advantage of the world's biggest trading organisation early this century - the British empire - and established himself in India. He prospered. Then came World War One, and he was ruined by the British - he was interned along with many other German residents, and his business collapsed. Tiny was born in internment in 1917.

After the war, the family went to Germany and his father built up a new business. In 1934, knowing little of Britain, Tiny moved with his mother to England, where they were later joined by his father. Tiny grew up a handsome, athletic but otherwise unremarkable young man. Then came the Second World War, and for a second time Rowland's father was interned and financially ruined by the British. The reasons for internment were obvious - not only was Fuhrhop a German, his eldest son was an officer in the Wehrmacht. But they may not have seemed so logical to the young Rowland.

Evidently a dutiful son, Rowland was clearly bitter about the treatment of his parents. His father was sent to the Isle of Man while his mother was for a period interned in Holloway Prison. He was not allowed to leave his army post to visit her, so he absconded. His mother developed terminal cancer but Rowland's father was not allowed to visit her in hospital, while Tiny claims he was only allowed to see her one hour a week. Rowland was himself interned because by then the authorities considered - apparently with good reason - his loyalty to Britain to be deeply suspect.

His family twice ruined by the British, it is not surprising that Rowland has fought savagely to hold on to his business in the face of what must have seemed like repeated attempts by the establishment to do him in. The boardroom revolt in 1973 that nearly ousted him from Lonrho was led by Sir Basil Smallpiece, administrative adviser to the Royal Household, and Nicholas Elliott, the former head of M16, two typical establishment figures. 'Tiny was magnificent,' recalled a fellow director later. 'He just wouldn't admit defeat. Whenever the news got worse, he just became more active and more aggressive.'

During Rhodesian UDI, he was infuriated at the way the British government connived in sanctions-busting by BP and Shell while Lonrho was being accused of trading there. When he lost Harrods to the Fayeds, the British authorities turned against him again and finally ignored the evidence he produced that the Egyptians had concealed information about their background. And when another challenge for control of his company appeared in the shape of Alan Bond, the Australian who bought a large stake in Lonrho, Tiny's by then characteristic reaction was so thorough that he precipitated Bond's bankruptcy. His highly developed instinct for survival is no doubt one cause of his ruthlessness as a businessman.

Rowland's contempt for the British establishment comes out in a revealing remark to a friend after clinching the deal that brought him into Lonrho in 1961. The director with whom he had negotiated was Angus Ogilvy, a relative of the Royal Family. 'I cleaned the pants off Ogilvy,' jeered Tiny. 'I had him eating out of my hand.' (It was, certainly, a startlingly good deal from Rowland's point of view.)

With such attitudes, why did Rowland remain tied to Britain? One reason may have been that Germany, shattered after the war, looked like a hopeless place to get rich. But he left England itself and, like his father before him, set off to the colonies to make his fortune - in Rhodesia instead of India. Moreover, as Bower points out, the aggressive young Rowland may have perceived British businessmen at the time as inept and ripe for the taking. In that respect he is like Robert Maxwell.

Rowland may have disliked England, but he tried to buy it. Also like Maxwell, he was a master at seducing the British establishment. By a mixture of charm and financial inducements he persuaded a parade of well-connected, if second-rank, politicians on to Lonrho's board, from Duncan Sandys to Sir Edward du Cann.

He followed a similar method of operation in Africa, although the payments were often, in the opinion of some former employees, more akin to bribes. But whether such things as paying for a senior African politician to go to hospital in the West in return for favours prove that Rowland overstepped the mark is a moot point. Rowland would argue that it was justified if it was necessary to facilitate Lonrho's operations in Africa.

It certainly suited his passion for secrecy and intrigue. One of the chief charges against Rowland is that he has never been open about Lonrho's financial position. Indeed, he has concealed some activities from other board directors. Habitually secretive, Rowland found he could get away with it - especially after his boardroom victory in 1973. (Immediately after the crucial vote, shareholders were told bluntly that there was no financial crisis at Lonrho. No one questioned this, although, in fact, the company was deeply in debt and in severe trouble.)

From Tiny's point of view, the less anyone else knew about Lonrho, the less likely they were to take it away from him. And the less they knew, the less they could stop him doing what he wanted.

Unquestionably, he wanted to be rich. Even as a young man he was addicted to smart clothes and fast cars. He describes himself approvingly as being 'obnoxiously rich for a young man' even before he went to Africa.

Like many businessmen, he also wanted power. In Africa, more than in most places, the pursuits of wealth and power were inseparable, because without political contacts business could not prosper. What makes Rowland remarkable is the obvious relish and success with which he courted African leaders. This was more than the process of doing business - it was an end in itself.

It flattered his enormous vanity to be seen on close terms with Africa's leaders, and to feel he had some control over them. While remaining secretive, Rowland loves the limelight, even when it involves controversy, as if it confirmed his importance as a public figure. That is reminiscent of Maxwell. Also like Maxwell, he ran his company like a dictator. Autocracy is a form of vanity, and Rowland is nothing if not autocratic.

According to the more negative view of Rowland, Lonrho was little more than a castle built on sand. That is unfair to Rowland's business skill. Lonrho has, in its time, owned some strikingly valuable assets such as the Ashanti gold mine, the platinum mines in South Africa and the Volkswagen car dealership in Britain. Rowland also saw the opportunity in Mercedes dealerships in Africa when the motor manufacturer was wrecked after the war. Lonrho's weakness was that Rowland is a skilful deal-maker who never allowed anyone far enough into his business to look after the finances once the deals had been done - hence the periodic crises and massive debts.

And Rowland does seem genuinely to have cared about Africa. Many of his interventions in the politics of the continent were to save Lonrho's investments, but there have been other reasons. Recently, for example, he helped broker a peace between the warring factions in Mozambique.

Even when the controversy over Bower's book subsides, however, Rowland will remain an enigma, his business dealings and private life shrouded in secrecy. And his place in the folklore of British business will always be as an outsider, because that is where he chose to be.

(Photograph omitted)