BOOK REVIEW / A charming buccaneer in the fridge business: 'Tiny Rowland: A Rebel Tycoon ' - Tom Bower: Heinemann 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
TOM BOWER's investigation into the life of Tiny Rowland promised to be the literary equivalent of Riddick Bowe fighting Lennox Lewis.

After his diligent and damaging expose of Robert Maxwell, Bower must now be Britain's best-known investigative journalist, the nearest thing we have to Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh. And after Maxwell, the obvious next target for Bower was Tiny Rowland, a controversial, colourful tycoon, whose business empire, while clearly under pressure, is still extensive.

At the time Bower started writing, Rowland's Lonrho owned the Metropole hotel chain, the Volkswagen dealerships in the UK and the Observer. It has now sold the latter two of these and only owns part of the first.

The scene was set for a great scrap. What skeletons would Bower unearth from Rowland's past? Would Bower rock Rowland's empire in the way he rocked Maxwell's? Would Rowland snow Bower in writs a la Maxwell? With such a build-up the book had to disappoint. It does.

Rowland is a fascinating subject. Born Roland Walter Fuhrhop in a British detention camp in India during the First World War to a German father and Anglo-Dutch mother, he grew up with split allegiances. His early years were spent in both Britain and Germany. He joined the Hitler Youth and attended a British public school. His father's business was confiscated by the British, and the wealth that Rowland amassed making fridges after the war was taken by the Inland Revenue. Yet after he emigrated to Rhodesia and rebuilt his fortune, Rowland chose to return to the UK in the early Sixties and fight his battles with the British establishment on its home ground.

Bower's book delves deeply into Rowland's life and career to reveal a buccaneering, charming entrepreneur who lives by his wits and is not averse to making payments to the odd African politician. It also shows him as an ogre and bully whose attempts to import his colonial way of doing business to Britain brought him close to catastrophe and into open war with the establishment. But while all of this is impressively researched, little is new. After all, Lonrho was called the 'unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism' by Edward Heath when he was prime minister; Rowland only narrowly survived the rebellion of the 'straight eight' directors in 1973; and the man and his company have spent the past seven years trying to prosecute a former secretary of state for trade and industry regarding the House of Fraser affair. Many of the revelations about Rowland's nefarious business practices are not new, as Richard Hall's excellent My Life with Tiny (Faber & Faber, 1987) provides much of same flavour. The way Lonrho's share price has shrugged off the book's publication shows how little impact it has had.

Indeed, where the book might have had some impact, it is singularly lacking in information. Rowland, in a typically opaque transaction, recently introduced a man many have identified as his successor, the German property developer Dieter Bock.

The City has been bemused by who Bock is and where he has amassed his apparent wealth. But either because Bock arrived on the scene too late for Bower, or because, like everyone else, he could not find out much about him, there is little about this critical development.

Similarly, there is no reference to Lonrho's attempts to take over Brent Walker in 1991. The stalking of the heavily indebted owner of the William Hill betting shop chain was a classic Lonrho deal, with Rowland using a dispossessed member of the Russian aristocracy as both a Trojan and a stalking horse. This is a serious omission, in both investigative and entertainment terms.

Despite its failings, A Rebel Tycoon is a good read. In the past Bower had a habit of overloading the reader with information. Maxwell: The Outsider often dragged. But the Rowland story is so breathless and colourful that its onward power soon drives the prose out of the mud. The early part of the book, detailing Rowland's youth, has fascinating revelations about Rowland's German, if not Nazi, allegiances. There are also some telling revelations about his manipulation of the journalism contained in the Observer, which cannot make comfortable reading for some of Britain's leading journalists.

Rowland has not fired off any writs, though his wife confessed to taking legal advice. With typical verve, Rowland dismissed the book as 'boring' and said: 'None of the interesting bits are in.' This is unfair, but A Rebel Tycoon is not the last word on Tiny Rowland.