Barbarians at the Gate

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A Book Review

Barbarians At The Gate
The Fall of RJR Nabisco
Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

Barbarians at the Gate has been called one of the most influential business books of all time - the definitive account of the frenzy that overtook Wall Street in October and November of 1988 from the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, Inc. by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. for $24.9 billion. It was the largest takeover in Wall Street history. It was co-written by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, both journalists for the Wall Street Journal. They wrote a series of articles about the takeover attempt. In 1989, they obtained additional information for the book by doing over 100 interviews. They interviewed all the major people -executives, lawyers, bankers and Wall Street traders - involved in the story, as well as many others. They provide a detailed account of the events in October and November of 1988 leading up to the buyout, as well as biographies of major players in the takeover attempt.

It is an insightful book, with respect to business, finance and corporate law and tells a complex, entertaining story--a drama, replete with a colorful ensemble of characters. Foremost of these characters, is Ross Johnson. It is also the story of his rise to the heights of corporate business. Johnson had come late to management at the age of forty in the early 1970s, but, in the next 15 years, he rose to be head of the nineteenth largest corporation in the United States - RJR Nabisco. At the time, RJR Nabisco was America's nineteenth largest industrial company, formed in 1985 after the merger of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Nabisco Brands, Inc. Its other major subsidiaries included Del Monte Corporation and Planters Life Savers Company. Johnson's methods were ruthless but effective. He worked for himself, for the extravagant perks which he valued, and for the ultimate power which he insisted on. He believed that a CEO can do anything. In the process, however, he also increased the value of his companies for the shareholders.

In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan took office and cut income tax. When interest rates and inflation eventually started to come down, the US economy experienced a strong recovery. Share prices rose steadily, inflation remained low and unemployment fell. But despite all this good economic news, RJR-Nabisco's stock remained low. Ross Johnson became fixated on the stock price and tried every conceivable means to prop up the price. He was constantly approached by bankers and financial consultants and encouraged to take on more debt, by taking the company private, but Johnson abhorred debt.

Then on Black Monday, October 19, 1987, Wall Street fell dramatically. By the end of the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average had lost more than 22.5% in value. The crash ruined many individuals and came in the middle of Ross Johnson's problems with the share value of his company. In fact, the crash may have led to Johnson's decision to go for an LBO, a reversal of his previous position on the matter. As the term implies, a leveraged buyout involves the purchase of a publicly held corporation from its shareholders using funds raised by the issuance of debt securities.

Ross Johnson secretly formed an internal management group that would take RJR private by executing a management-led leveraged buyout. The management group would consist of Johnson; Harold Henderson, general counsel; Edward A. Horrigan, Jr., vice chairman and chairman of R JR Nabisco's tobacco division; John Martin, executive vice president; Edward J. Robinson, chief financial officer; Andrew G.C. Sage II, outside director and consultant; and James O. Welch, vice chairman and chairman of R JR Nabisco's food division. Steven Goldstone, of Davis, Polk & Wardwell, would serve as counsel to Johnson and the management group. James D. Robinson III, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express, would act as informal senior advisor to...
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