View from City Road: Do not be fooled by Lonrho

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The Independent Online
As so often before, reports of Tiny Rowland's demise proved premature. The much-heralded coup failed to materialise at yesterday's Lonrho board meeting. Tiny survived, his executive position and reported pounds 5.5m annual maintenance untouched and unfettered.

Lonrho insisted that it was all a fuss about nothing, no more than wild and unfounded press speculation. Should we believe them? Hardly.

By all accounts, the board meeting was a pretty tame affair with none of the thunder and lightning so widely anticipated. There wasn't even the meekest of calls for the grand old man to be stripped of his executive duties. Instead, discussion was confined to the issue of how to address the welter of dramatic press stories that have appeared in recent days. Anyone who believes all is sweetness and light on the Lonrho board would, however, be misguided.

Most City people have always been vaguely aware that Tiny costs a lot to maintain. The sudden reappearance of the story days before a board meeting cannot be seen as anything other than a deliberate plant by his joint chief executive, Dieter Bock.

The only odd thing about the whole affair is that, having prepared and leaked the evidence, Mr Bock and his supporters should not have been able to follow it through with an execution. Is it really possible after all the changes of the past year that Tiny still has more supporters on the board than Mr Bock?

It is not just on the issue of corporate governance that Mr Bock quarrels with Tiny; it is also on the commercial front. Tiny, according to Mr Bock, brings in little if any business these days. Worse, he has become an imposing and stubborn barrier to change. Mr Bock would like to unbundle: Mr Rowland wants the empire kept intact.

Despite his 76 years of age and dwindling power base, Mr Rowland is proving difficult to dislodge. Mr Bock knows what he has to do, but when the moment comes, he seems unwilling to carry it through. Confrontation appears not to be his style. The end, however, cannot be far off now. In little more than a year, Mr Bock has the right to call the rest of Mr Rowland's shares, and if Mr Rowland hasn't gone by then, he surely must soon after. In the meantime Lonrho and Tiny lose none of their ability to capture the headlines.

High drama and farce have always been the company's hallmarks. Tiny seems determined to maintain them to the last. Not for him growing old gracefully. And Mr Bock? No doubt we can soon expect some dirt to be thrown back in his direction by way of recompense. 'All good fun,' as Tiny's wife would say.