Tiny Rowland – portrait of the bastard as a rebel

The Guardian, August 1 1990

(Note: For readers in 1990, this story had a significant context, that Rowland’s company, Lonrho, owned The Observer and that Rowland was brazenly abusing his position to pressurise the paper into backing his obsessive quest to buy the Harrods department store in central London.)

 

Tiny Rowland, as everyone knows, is a bastard. He is greedy, ruthless and arrogant, a capitalist red in tooth and claw. As a boy, he was a member of the Hitler Youth. During the war, he was interned with Mosley’s fascists on the Isle of Man. As a businessman, he has made selfishness a way of life, turning an ailing African mining company called Lonrho into an international giant by pillaging his way through the third world, bending rules, breaking opponents and incidentally besmirching the reputation of the Observer newspaper.

Even his old friends are sometimes left breathless by his viciousness. One of them recalled how a prominent businessman who had fallen out badly with Tiny was sitting in the Cairo Hilton with his wife and eight-year-old son when he spotted his old rival sitting on the other side of the swimming pool reading a book. The businessman saw his chance to put an end to their painful vendetta and persuaded his son to go across and say Hallo.

The boy approached Rowland. “Mr Rowland. Hallo. It’s me, your Godson.”

Rowland looked up, looked away, snapped his book shut and walked off. “He can be so cruel,” his old friend explained. “It is as if he is not quite human. I have never met anyone else who thinks in this extraordinary way that he does. Completely cold. No reservations. Calculating. It’s very hard to describe – he is just not quite human.”

Yet things are not so simple. It is certainly true that everyone thinks they know that Tiny Rowland is a bastard. He is wonderfully unpopular. On the left, his name ranks with Goldsmith and Murdoch as a by-word for evil. Yet on the right, too, he is a hate-figure: no knighthood, no dinners at Downing Street, no love at all lost between him and the rest of the City. But on closer examination, it is not at all clear that he deserves his special demon status.

Consider, for example, the case of Alan Bond, Tiny’s latest victim. First, you have to understand that in his journey to super-wealth, Bond has enjoyed an entirely different reputation from Rowland. For years, Australians – and particularly the citizens of his home town, Perth, – regarded him as a loveable rascal – bright, bumptious, down-to-Earth, up-to-his-old-tricks, chubby, cuddly, old Bondy. Winnie the Pooh with megabucks.

Bondy sat next to Prince Rainier of Monaco at dinner and told him “Eat your veggies”. Australians loved it. His wife, Red, ran around in an open-top Mercedes with leopard-skin seats, and called it “my pooftah car”. They loved her, too. He owned half the beer in Australia. They drank it. He had ten homes, two islands, a small village in the Cotswolds, 100,000 sheep, most of Australia’s TV stations, oil, newspapers, diamond mines, gold mines, Van Gogh’s Irises – and they all said Alan Bond could do no wrong. Until he crossed Tiny. Tiny destroyed him.

He started to do so in November 1988 when he researched, printed and distributed a 93-page booklet, entitled “The Bond Group of Companies: A Financial Analysis by Lonrho plc”. It was an X-ray of everything Bond owned and it revealed that, contrary to its appearance of blooming health, Bond’s empire, in truth, was decaying and rotten, riddled with debt. Bond Group Companies were “technically insolvent”. Investing in them had been “a disaster”. Bond’s debts were three times the size he claimed; his assets were only half what he pretended; his profits were a fiction.

The Australian business community absorbed Tiny’s research and began to worry. Bond’s shares started to fall. His credit rating slipped. Rowland published a second report, then a third, and a fourth. Australian newspapers, many of them owned by Bond’s rivals, started to turn on him. Tiny sent one of his directors over to Australia to travel the country rubbing salt into the wounded Bond empire. Australian banks started calling in their loans. The courts took over his breweries, robbing him of the cash flow he needed to pay interest on his debts. His shares fell through the floor. He was said to be nine billion dollars out of pocket. Finally, he had no alternative: Alan Bond dismantled his business, selling it off at ruinous, knock-down prices.

On the face of it, it could not be clearer: a classic example of the Tiny Rowland that nannies use to frighten their toddlers. But the closer you look, the harder it is to be sure that he is the one who is in the wrong.

To start with, Bond is not Winnie the Pooh. There was a famous occasion when Red told him she was going to divorce him for ten million dollars, and he told her he could get her ‘bumped off’ for ten thousand. Australian police have been investigating complaints that he has been bugging the phones of a business rival, a stockbroker and a financial journalist. The High Court in London last year described his advisers as ‘a cabal’ and said his ‘secrecy verged on paranoia’. Bond is a take-no-prisoners businessman who does whatever it takes. That is why he crossed Tiny in the first place.

It started back in the summer of 1988 when Bond had just blown a small fortune trying and failing to destroy his greatest Australian rival, Robert Holmes a Court, and was looking around for a new cash cow, some company he could buy up relatively cheaply as a source of liquid funds to cover his debts. He chose Lonrho. It was a mistake. Then he decided to trick Tiny. Another mistake.

Bond hardly knew the man he was targeting. They had met on the yachting circuit in the Antibes and exchanged cocktails, and when Bond traveled to England in September 1988 and drove up to Tiny’s country estate in Buckinghamshire, it might have been no more than another social visit. Tiny has since insisted that it was merely ‘a family Saturday lunch in the country’. Bond, however, talked business and suggested that he should buy a block of Lonrho shares – not, of course, because he was interested in the company for himself, but simply because there were rumours that an American corporate raider was buying up Lonrho shares and Tiny might need help. Tiny was not interested.

But within 48 hours, he discovered that Bond was going ahead anyway, and had already bought 10% of his company. Within weeks, Bond had laid out $600 million and owned more of the company than Tiny himself did. Bond then suggested a meeting to discuss ‘mutual benefit’. Decoded, that meant a takeover bid. Tiny, who was reluctant to have his life’s work stolen away, decided to defend himself, declined to meet Bond and explained in a letter to him: “You don’t know me very well”. Decoded, that was the end of Alan Bond.

As Tiny drove Bond back off his property, pushing him nearer and nearer the brink, the Australian complained bitterly that he was suffering ‘a great injustice’. Tiny’s methods, he said, were ‘unethical’. His demise was nothing less than ‘the end of democracy’. Of course, it was not. Tiny was only doing to Bond what Bond had tried to do to him and, earlier, to Holmes a Court. It was just business.

Those who subscribe to the Tiny-is-a-bastard school of thought like to dig around in his childhood and his wartime experiences on the Isle of Man in search of psychological roots. There, they find a tale of injustice and frustrated dreams. The question remains whether the whole tale is true.

The first 30 years of his life were dominated and distorted by the simple fact that his father, Wilhelm Fuhrhop, was German. Because of that, Tiny’s mother gave birth to him, in 1917, in captivity; his father had been running an export business in Calcutta and the whole family were interned outside the city as enemy aliens by the British authorities. In the next war, despite the fact that they had fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in England, his parents were interned again for the same reason.

Tiny, himself, at first avoided his parents’ fate. By virtue of his birth in India, he had British citizenship. Although he had grown up in Hamburg, his father, who was no Nazi and was evidently alarmed to find his son being sucked into the Hitler Youth, had packed him off to a minor public school in Hampshire, where he played rugby and developed the speech and manner of an upper class Englishman. He was just beginning to make his way in the world, working as a shipping agent and whipping round Mayfair in a sporty car, when war broke out. He had changed his name from Fuhrhop to Rowland, but his Germaness still caught up with him.

He volunteered to become an intelligence officer with MI6 but he was turned down. He found himself instead spending three years square-bashing and rolling bandages as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. When his mother became ill in her internment camp and his commanding officer refused him permission to visit her, he went AWOL and was rewarded with four weeks in jail. He protested loudly at his parents’ detention, was discharged from the army and was then himself interned on the Isle of Man under Regulation 18B which covered those whose liberty was held to be “prejudicial to the Defence of the Realm”. His mother died in captivity of cancer which the authorities had failed to diagnose.

For those in search of an emotional explanation for his career, the picture is simple. Here was this outsider, effectively an immigrant, who desperately wanted to prove that he belonged and who suffered the double indignity not only of being rebuffed but of being jailed as an enemy for his pains. This overwhelming rejection, it is said, filled him with such contempt that he was driven to devote his life to vengeance: he fled Britain to make a fortune in Africa and then returned to flaunt his wealth and power and to torment the establishment snobs who had hurt him.

In this light, his desperate quest for the ownership of Harrods is really an obsession with robbing the jewels from his enemy’s crown; his boardroom battle with conservative directors of Lonrho in 1973 is just another poke in the eye for the British establishment (they dismissed him as ‘a cad’; he derided their leader as ‘a paper merchant, mainly interested in petty cash vouchers’); his liaisons with African leaders are snubs to the Foreign Office who envy his influence.

But there is another version of this story, though it has to be said that it lacks any hard evidence in its support. On this account, the most significant single incident in the story – Tiny’s own internment – may itself be a sleight of hand. The truth, according to a long-term associate, may be that three years after he first volunteered, Tiny was granted his wish to work for the British intelligence services and that his four weeks in jail and his subsequent discharge from the army were both arranged so that he could go through the motions of being interned with Mosley’s fascists, thus becoming a spy, an official informer.

This associate of Tiny’s wonders out loud at the bizarre co-incidence that one of the original directors of Lonrho who was responsible for hiring Tiny in 1961 was one Sir Joseph Ball, formerly of MI5 and the Home Defence (Security) Executive. If Rowland was a British agent in the Isle of Man, Sir Joseph would have been one of his controllers.

In his book, My Life With Tiny, Richard Hall notes that until 1973 Tiny shared his boardroom with Nick Elliot of MI6 and that on several occasions he appeared to be marching in step with British intelligence: during the Biafran war when he was uncannily well-informed about British plans; and later in Sudan, when there was an attempted Communist coup and Tiny flew key Government figures back to the fray while MI6 ensured that Communist supporters were diverted to Libya and a firing squad.

On this version of events, Tiny is not some forlorn outsider driven by hatred, but a consummate insider with the same motor that propels any other capitalist. He is simply a deal-maker. He may talk his way out of the army, or make a small fortune after the war flying oranges into Britain, or develop a neighbouring farmer’s gold mine in Rhodesia, or drive into a garage and drive away after recruiting the owner as a new partner. It is all deals. And as a deal-maker, he is no more obsessive and morally no worse than any other. Criticising him for being ruthless, greedy and selfish is like complaining that a boxer hits people. It may be unpleasant, but it is the heart and soul of what he does.
For sure, Tiny is childish (Richard Hall quotes his attempt to deny all interest in Harrods – ‘I called in once for a haircut’), spiteful (he sent an opponent yellow roses every day for a week, crowned with the simple message ‘Yellow belly’) and dishonest (a Government inspector described him as ‘an optimist whose wishes often father his memory’). But it is hard to see how, in any of this, he is very different to his rivals.

In a few respects, he might claim to be considerably less nasty than other leading entrepreneurs. For example, when James Goldsmith tried to destroy Private Eye in the mid 70s, Tiny Rowland offered the magazine all the money it needed to defend itself. When Shell and BP ignored sanctions and sold oil to the white regime in Rhodesia, Tiny leaked details to the press and exposed them. He has a bizarre history of consoling fallen millionaires: Jim Slater, Ernest Saunders, Freddie Laker, Sir Hugh Fraser, John De Lorean all found him offering help as they were threatened with ruin.

Like other white businessmen in Africa, he is vulnerable to the criticism that he has exploited black leaders; his sudden decision in 1983 to abandon Joshua Nkomo after years of support in order to win favour from the Mugabe regime was a ruthless financial calculation. But unlike many other businessmen in Africa, he is no racist: from his earliest days in Rhodesia and through his long-standing relationships with Kenyatta, Kaunda, Moi, Savimbi and others, he has always been exempt from that charge and he has helped several black nationalists out of the bush and into the Presidential palace.

All big entrepreneurs have the stink of unpopularity around them. Whether it is through envy or sincere distaste, Trump, Goldsmith, Murdoch, Maxwell have all become popular figures of hate. The one characteristic that has marked out Tiny – the thing that has made him an enemy of the right as well as the left – is his lack of respect for authority.

Angus Ogilvy may have been an aristocrat and a member of the Royal family, but that did not stop Tiny informing him that he was a rat and threatening “I’m going to crucify you and all your family”. When the former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, wrote to him asking him to keep the good name of the Sultan of Brunei out of the squabble over Harrods, Tiny wrote back: “When I first read your letter, I thought it would be kinder not to take advantage of the opening you have given me. The thought perished immediately.” In the same dispute, he has taken on Margaret Thatcher and her last three Trade Secretaries, bombarding them with insults (and, finally, being vindicated). It is this refusal to play clubish games with the rich and powerful which has earned him his special demon status.

He is fond of saying that the City is a nastier jungle than anything that Africa has to offer. To put it another way, Tiny Rowland may be a bastard, but in the company he keeps, that is not unusual.