View from City Road: The end is nigh for Rowland

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The Independent Online
Is this really the end of the road for Tiny Rowland? We seem to have been here so many times before that somehow it seems hard to believe. Indeed the signs last night were that directors would probably not deliver the final coup de grace at today's board meeting. Instead some directors were talking of a stay of execution, at least until they have studied details of his annual pounds 5.5m cost in salary, perks and expenses. If not today, however, the end cannot be long in coming.

Tiny famously survived a previous attempt to oust him over his extravagant lifestyle. On that occasion shareholders rallied round, supporting his penchant for corporate jets, country houses and the like. But that was 20 years ago. In those days he was still relatively young. His power broking in Africa and beyond seemed to have some commercial purpose and in any case he owned more than 20 per cent of the company, with the rest largely in the hands of an admiring and deferential army of small investors.

Circumstances have changed. He is now 76, institutions have more than 40 per cent of the stock, times are hard and his joint chief executive, Dieter Bock, the German financier brought in to help support the company, has proved far from the friend Tiny had hoped for. The board has become packed with Bock supporters and the labyrinthine articles of association that once might have protected Tiny have been comprehensively dismantled. What might have been acceptable in 1973 (Ted Heath didn't think so even then) is certainly not so now in the austere 1990s with corporate excess one of the burning issues.

Once Mr Rowland might have been able to justify his pounds 5.5m cost. Not now. Even in Africa he seems to have backed all the wrong horses. Mr Bock has come to believe that his meddling might even be a positive force for harm. A bit like an expensive vintage car, he has become a luxury, possibly even a liability, that Lonrho can ill afford - expensive to maintain and highly unreliable into the bargain.

As his fiefdom slips from his grasp, it is impossible not to feel at least a touch of sympathy for the old buccaneer. Anything is possible with Tiny but it is hard to see what cards he has left to play. Certainly blaming Mr Bock for leaking the information in a desperate attempt to deflect attention from its import, is not nearly good enough. The curtain finally falls.