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.Reuse content