Tiny ready to make last stand

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The Independent Online
ARE we about to witness Tiny Rowland's last stand? To seasoned City observers of Lonrho that is how it appears, as the company is dragged kicking and screaming by its new German shareholder, Dieter Bock, into the late 20th century. Ever since Mr Rowland invited Mr Bock in as an 18.8 per cent shareholder and joint chief executive, Lonrho followers have been predicting that the two will fall out.

There have been rumours of disagreements before - most notably over the sale of the Observer - but so far the lid has been kept on any friction there might be. It's hard to imagine, however, that the relative calm can continue after Mr Bock's latest initiatives. It certainly wouldn't be in Tiny's character to accept them lying down.

In an effort to make Lonrho 'respectable' - and acceptable in the City - Mr Bock is proposing to appoint two non-executive directors, the first to grace the board since 1973, when a number of them tried unsuccessfully to oust Tiny as chief executive.

Mr Rowland's dislike of non-executives, whom he once referred to as no more than 'decorations on a Christmas tree', is well known, but to add insult to injury, one of Mr Bock's favoured choices is a Hanson man, Peter Harper. To Tiny it must look as if Mr Bock is sticking two fingers up at him. Tiny hates Hanson with a vengeance, and while there is life and fight in him I cannot imagine him accepting such an appointment.

Tiny's hatred of Hanson is partly to do with it being a rival - and more successful - conglomerate than his own, but it goes deeper than that. He hates Lords Hanson and White, because they were successful in the 1980s and he wasn't; because by being close to Mrs Thatcher and government they were able to do what they wanted in business while he was blocked; because they grew and prospered while he allowed himself to become sidelined in a long and increasingly irrelevant fight with the Fayeds over the House of Fraser department stores group.

When I phoned Mr Rowland on Friday night, he was too ill with flu to comment, but the signs of dissent are plainly there: the two appointments were meant to be approved last week but have been postponed to give board members a chance to meet and appraise the two men. To Lonrhologists, this looks like delaying tactics by Mr Rowland, though it may be no more than the effects of flu. He is 76 next month, and you have to wonder whether he still possesses the energy, let alone the power base, to fight his new shareholder. If he were 10 years younger, I have no doubt he would be relishing the forthcoming fight - he would probably win it, too. It would be nice to believe he has still got it in him, but even Tiny must begin to yearn for the quiet life. We shall see.