He just could not go quietly

Tiny Rowland created Lonrho. Now it has rejected him. William Kay surveys a turbulent career

Share
Related Topics
Nothing became Tiny Rowland so much as the manner of his apparent departure from the business stage. Yesterday Lonrho, the company he created from the former London and Rhodesia Mining Company, said that its association with Rowland had "come to an end". Lonrho may think it has - but Rowland almost certainly has other ideas.

He was due to retire gracefully from the board at the company's annual shareholders' meeting in three weeks. Instead he has been summarily dismissed because, said Lonrho, "his continuing public and irreconcilable differences with the company are in the board's view incompatible with any continuing association". Plans to make him life president have been scrapped.

Rowland's 34-year association with Lonrho has been littered with such controversies. His capacity for bouncing back from seemingly impossible situations had long made business journalists wary of writing him off. When he stepped down as Lonrho's chief executive at the age of 77 last Christmas, several commentators warned that we probably had not heard the last of him. Last month he broke surface as a potential bidder to buy back the Observer, the newspaper which Lonrho bought under his reign, but sold in 1993 in the teeth of his opposition.

By that time Lonrho had fallen under the control of Dieter Bock, a mysterious 55-year-old German businessman whom Rowland had recruited as his successor. But, like so many of Rowland's business relationships, it has ended in acrimony born of his fierce appetite for revenge.

Rowland was born Walter Furhop in India in 1917, the son of a German importer. The family were interned by the British authorities in both world wars, which helped to solidify the chip on Rowland's shoulder about the English establishment. In the Twenties they returned to Germany, and there is evidence that Rowland was a member of the Hitler Youth movement. However his mother moved to England with Tiny - an ironic nickname bestowed on him by his Indian nanny because of his height - and sent him to Churchers, a minor public school on the South Coast. There he began to recreate himself as a quintessential upper-class Englishman, calling himself Roland Walter Rowland, dressing smartly and cultivating the appropriate cut-glass accent. He joined the British Army during the Second World War, but was disciplined for absconding to visit his mother, interned on the Isle of Man.

Rowland went into business after the war, earning enough within a few years to be crippled by income tax demands. Fed up with what he saw as socialist restrictions and high tax rates, he joined the exodus to the freer ways and higher standards of living available to Europeans in colonial Africa. He became a pillar of the social circuit in Salisbury, southern Rhodesia, - now Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe - earning his living as an upmarket car dealer. He soon discovered that his undoubted charm and dazzling smile worked well on African politicians eager for respectability and access to Western capital and know-how.

In this milieu he met Angus Ogilvy, later to marry into the Royal Family. Ogilvy had been sent to Africa by Harley Drayton, his City employer, to find someone to run the London and Rhodesian Mining Company.Tiny grabbed the opportunity, using Lonrho's status as a company quoted on the London stock market to open doors and take it from its farming and mining interests to motor franchises and sugar plantations, and then ambitious plans such as building an oil pipeline from Rhodesia to the Mozambique coast.

He and Lonrho became indivisible, making the business dependent on his personal contacts. He also took a bold approach to drawing up Lonrho's accounts, which alarmed pension fund investors and prompted an inquiry. That led to the appointment of a phalanx of non-executive directors who were supposed to keep Rowland in check. When the inevitable row blew up in 1973 the non-executives held a shareholders' meeting to oust Rowland. But instead Rowland routed them. His position was ensured - but the pension funds and other institutions sold Lonrho's shares and Edward Heath, the then prime minister, dismissed the company as "an unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism". As the years went by, that epithet was transferred to Rowland himself.

Rowland became the outsider who derided the British establishment but always seemed to want its respect. He also found it increasingly difficult to explain to his international business contacts what Lonrho actually did, as it added Brentford Nylons and Metropole Hotels in the UK to its African interests. Buying the Observer in 1981 forced the establishment to listen to him and gave his business an identity.

However, in the late Seventies, Rowland found what was to become his grand obsession: his decade-long battle to buy the House of Fraser department store group with its jewel, Harrods. He had been thwarted by the Department of Trade and Industry on more than one occasion before he made the fatal decision in 1984 to sell - on a strictly temporary basis - a key block of Fraser shares to Mohamed Al Fayed, a former Lonrho director who disarmingly insisted he had no interest in owning the company. As soon as he had the stake, however, Al Fayed turned the tables and launched a successful takeover bid - to Rowland's undying fury.

Meanwhile, Lonrho was in decline and Rowland needed cash. That led him into a brief liaison with the Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond. But when Bond dared to talk of taking over Rowland turned on him. Bond lost £60m and went bankrupt. Four years later Rowland formed a more controversial alliance with Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, to whom he sold shares in Metropole Hotels. Rowland became increasingly friendless, turning eventually to Bock.

When Bock took effective control of Lonrho two years ago, the City breathed a sigh of relief, but Rowland's admirers predicted his successor would be duller. So it has proved, and it is possible that Lonrho may be broken up or turned into a European property business. But it would be rash to say that Rowland, even at 77, has been finally banished from the company he loves and still has a large investment in. He is said to be worth £200m and has little else to do but make mischief at the expense of his enemies.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test