Rowland leaves legacy of fortune, fame and feuding

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 1998, 12:00am

Roland 'Tiny' Rowland, multi-millionaire and the man once famously described by former British prime minister Edward Heath as the 'unacceptable face of capitalism', has died aged 80, after losing a long struggle against skin cancer.

The creator of the giant mining-to-oil group Lonrho, whose links with African leaders were so impeccable that Britain's secret service once reportedly said that he had better contacts in Africa than they did, was regarded as one of the most controversial of businessmen since World War II.

Rowland's life peppered the gossip columns and the serious pages of the world's newspapers. Tales abounded of suspect dealings in Africa, media manipulation through his ownership of Britain's The Observer newspaper, and a long-running feud over the ownership of Harrods - one of the world's most famous department stores - which was to see him to his death.

His critics were everywhere, but, for the more than 30 years he built up Lonrho, his shareholders benefited from substantial returns on their capital.

Lonrho, formerly known as the Rhodesian Mining Co, was transformed from a small farming and mining combine to a giant conglomerate with exposure to Africa's vast natural mineral reserves and interests in agriculture, motor franchises and oil pipelines.

The business generated a personal fortune estimated at GBP150 million (about HK$1.93 billion) and saw Rowland take control of the textiles group Brentford Nylons, the Metropole Hotels chain and The Observer newspaper until 1993.

Rowland owned homes in London, in rural Buckinghamshire and in Mexico, as well as a yacht in the Mediterranean.

Not a smooth-talker, the combative businessman once told a reporter: 'You can never have enough enemies.' Among his numerous battles, he was personally responsible for delivering a mortal blow against failed Australian tycoon Alan Bond.

An audacious attempt by Mr Bond to exert boardroom influence over Lonrho through the purchase of a large minority stake failed dramatically after Rowland commissioned a devastating report in 1988. It concluded that Mr Bond's empire had a net value of minus A$3 billion (about HK$14.4 billion).

His ownership of Lonrho spanned three decades and ended only after a fierce boardroom battle in March 1995 with German financier Dieter Bock.

Hit by recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, slumping profits and mounting debts, Lonrho was forced to make disposals, seek cash from a controversial joint venture in Libya and agree to a financing that installed Mr Bock into power.

Yesterday, a headline in The Observer, which fittingly broke the story of Rowland's demise, said: 'He owned this newspaper. He owned half of Africa. He tried to own everything. Including Harrods'.

In the Harrods battle, after being outmanoeuvred for control of the store in 1984 by former business associate Mohamed al-Fayed, Rowland launched a campaign to discredit Mr al-Fayed and attempt to prove that he had lied to the British Government about his background.

The Observer became seen as his principal tool to launch a series of stories undermining Mr al-Fayed's position.

These accompanied a 14-year legal battle, which cost an estimated GBP40 million and ended only after Rowland's fellow directors at Lonrho cajoled him to call a truce.

In one way the battle paid off, as it eventually prompted an inquiry in 1987 by Britain's Department of Trade and Industry into the takeover of Harrods.

Right to the very end, the battle for the store appeared to consume Rowland. Only last week, police announced that Mr al-Fayed and members of his staff would not face any charges over claims that the contents of Rowland's safe-deposit boxes at Harrods had been stolen.

While such feuding was the meat and drink of newspapers, Rowland was immensely respected, particularly in Africa. Tributes from leaders, including South African President Nelson Mandela and the former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, poured in yesterday.

His wife and four children were at his bedside when he died, having flown him several days earlier from his yacht, the Hansa.