Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

4.7 29
by Bryan Burrough, John Helyar

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book that stormed both the bestseller list and the public imagination, a book that created a genre of its own, and a book that gets at the heart of Wall Street and the '80s culture it helped define, Barbarians at the Gate has emerged twenty years after the tumultuous deal it so brilliantly recounts as a modern classic—a masterpiece of investigatory


book that stormed both the bestseller list and the public imagination, a book that created a genre of its own, and a book that gets at the heart of Wall Street and the '80s culture it helped define, Barbarians at the Gate has emerged twenty years after the tumultuous deal it so brilliantly recounts as a modern classic—a masterpiece of investigatory journalism and a rollicking book of corporate derring-do and financial swordsmanship.

The fight to control RJR Nabisco during October and November of 1988 was more than just the largest takeover in Wall Street history. Marked by brazen displays of ego not seen in American business for decades, it became the high point of a new gilded age and its repercussions are still being felt. The tale remains the ultimate story of greed and glory—a story and a cast of characters that determined the course of global business and redefined how deals would be done and fortunes made in the decades to come.

Barbarians at the Gate is the gripping account of these two frenzied months, of deal makers and publicity flaks, of an old-line industrial powerhouse (home of such familiar products a Oreos and Camels) that became the victim of the ruthless and rapacious style of finance in the 1980s. As reporters for The Wall Street Journal, Burrough and Helyar had extensive access to all the characters in this drama. They take the reader behind the scenes at strategy meetings and society dinners, into boardrooms and bedrooms, providing an unprecedentedly detailed look at how financial operations at the highest levels are conducted but also a richly textured social history of wealth at the twilight of the Reagan era.

At the center of the huge power struggle is RJR Nabisco's president, the high-living Ross Johnson. It's his secret plan to buy out the company that sets the frenzy in motion, attracting the country's leading takeover players: Henry Kravis, the legendary leveraged-buyout king whose entry into the fray sets off an acquisitive commotion; Peter Cohen, CEO of Shearson Lehman Hutton and Johnson's partner, who needs a victory to propel his company to an unchallenged leadership in the lucrative mergers and acquisitions field; the fiercely independent Ted Forstmann, motivated as much by honor as by his rage at the corruption he sees taking over the business he cherishes; Jim Maher and his ragtag team, struggling to regain credibility for the decimated ranks at First Boston; and an army of desperate bankers, lawyers, and accountants, all drawn inexorably to the greatest prize of their careers—and one of the greatest prizes in the history of American business.

Written with the bravado of a novel and researched with the diligence of a sweeping cultural history, Barbarians at the Gate is present at the front line of every battle of the campaign. Here is the unforgettable story of that takeover in all its brutality. In a new afterword specially commissioned for the story's 20th anniversary, Burrough and Helyar return to visit the heroes and villains of this epic story, tracing the fallout of the deal, charting the subsequent success and failure of those involved, and addressing the incredible impact this story—and the book itself—made on the world.

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times Book Review
A superlative book...steadily builds suspense until the very end.
New York Times Book Review
One of the finest, most compelling accounts of what happened to corporate America and Wall Street in the 1980s.
On the exercise of careless greed by Johnson and his gang of adolescents. The barbarians were at the gates of a city of vulgarians. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Ken Auletta
“Impressive qualities... delicious scenes... a cinematic yet extraordinarily careful book.”
Chicago Tribune
“It’s hard to imagine a better story...and it’s hard to imagine a better account”
Today Show
“The fascinating inside story of the largest corporate takeover in American history… It reads like a novel.”
Boston Globe
“The most piercing and compelling narrative of a deal to date.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
20th Anniversary Edition
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Barbarians at the Gate
The Fall of RJR Nabisco

Chapter One

Ross's philosophy is, "We're going to have a party, a very sophisticated, complicated party."
-- 0.C. Adams, consulting psychologist to RJR Nabisco

Ross Johnson was being followed. A detective, he guessed, no doubt hired by that old skinflint Henry Weigl. Every day, through the streets of Manhattan, no matter where Johnson went, his shadow stayed with him. Finally he had had enough. Johnson had friends, lots of them, and one in particular who must have had contacts in the goon business. He had this annoying problem, Johnson explained to his friend. He'd like to get rid of a tail. No problem, said the friend. Sure enough, within days the detective vanished. Whatever the fellow was doing now, Johnson's friend assured him, he was probably walking a little funny.

It was the spring of 1976, and at a second-tier food company named Standard Brands, things were getting ugly. Weigl, its crusty old chairman, was out to purge his number two, Johnson, the shaggy-haired young Canadian who pranced about Manhattan with glamorous friends such as Frank Gifford and "Dandy" Don Meredith. Weigl sicced a team of auditors on Johnson's notoriously bloated expense accounts and collected tales of his former protégé's extramarital affairs.

Johnson's hard-drinking band of young renegades began plotting a counterattack, lobbying directors and documenting all the underlying rot in the company's businesses. Rumors of an imminent coup began sweeping the company's Madison Avenue headquarters.

Then tensions exploded into the open: A shouting match erupted between Johnson and Weigl, a popular executive dropped dead, a board of directors was rent asunder. Everything came to a head at a mid-May board meeting. Weigl went in first, ready to bare his case against Johnson. Johnson followed, his own trap ready to spring.

As the hours wore on, Johnson's aides, "the Merry Men," wandered through Central Park, waiting for the victor to emerge. Things were bound to get bloody in there. But when it came to corporate politics, no one was ready to count out Ross Johnson. He seemed to have a knack for survival.

Until the fall of 1988 Ross Johnson's life was a series of corporate adventures, in which he would not only gain power for himself but wage war on an old business order.

Under that old order, big business was a slow and steady entity. The Fortune 500 was managed by "company men": junior executives who worked their way up the ladder and gave one company their all and senior executives who were corporate stewards, preserving and cautiously enhancing the company.

Johnson was to become the consummate "noncompany man." He shredded traditions, jettisoned divisions, and roiled management. He was one of a whole breed of noncompany men who came to maturity in the 1970S and 1980s: a deal-driven, yield-driven nomadic lot. They said their mission was to serve company investors, not company tradition. They also tended to handsomely serve themselves.

But of all the noncompany men, Johnson cut the highest profile. He did the biggest deals, had the biggest mouth, and enjoyed the biggest perks. He would come to be the very symbol of the business world's "Roaring Eighties." And he would climax the decade by launching the deal of the century -- scattering one of America's largest, most venerable companies to the winds.

The man who would come to represent the new age of business was born in 1931 at the depth of an old one. Frederick Ross Johnson was raised in Depression-era Winnipeg, the only child of a lower-middle-class home. He was always "Ross," never Fred -- Fred was his father's name. The senior Johnson was a hardware salesman by vocation, a woodworker by avocation, and a man of few words. Johnson's petite mother, Caroline, was the pepper pot of the household -- a bookkeeper at a time when few married women worked, a crack bridge player in her free time. Young Ross owed an early knack for numbers and the gift of gab to her; an early entrepreneurial bent be owed to the times. The Johnsons weren't poverty-stricken, but neither did they own their own bungalow until Johnson was eight years old.

Around that period young Ross began working at a variety of afterschool jobs. He used the money he earned for serious things, like buying clothes. He started with standard kid tasks, such as delivering magazines around the neighborhood and selling candy at the circus, then branched into more innovative ventures, such as renting out comic books from his collection. When he grew older, he sold certificates for baby pictures door-to-door. It was an enterprise he would turn to whenever he needed a buck during his years in college.

Johnson wasn't the best student in his high school, ceding that honor to his friend Neil Wood, who would go on to head the huge Cadillac Fairview real estate firm. Johnson was the kind of teenager who could rank in the upper quarter of his class, as he did, without appearing to try very hard, which be didn't. Nor was he the best athlete in school, although he was a rangy six feet three inches by the time he graduated. He was far better at memorizing baseball statistics in The Sporting News than hitting a fastball.

Unlike his father, who hadn't completed high school, Ross Johnson wanted to be a college man, and he took the crosstown bus each day to Winnipeg's University of Manitoba. He was average inside the classroom but excellent out of it: president of his fraternity, varsity basketball, and honors as outstanding cadet in the Canadian version of ROTC. (This despite a propensity for pranks: One night Johnson and some chums ambushed a superior officer, whom they considered a superior jerk, tied him to a diving board, and left him to contemplate his sins as the sun rose.)...

Barbarians at the Gate
The Fall of RJR Nabisco
. Copyright &#copy; by Bryan Burrough. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Ken Auletta
“Impressive qualities... delicious scenes... a cinematic yet extraordinarily careful book.”

Meet the Author

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of five books.

John Helyar is a columnist for Bloomberg News. He previously wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and ESPN, and is the author of Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball.

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Barbarians at the Gate 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I lived through the largest LBO in History. I was the Office Manager for the NY offices at RJR Nabisco. I even kicked Bryan Burrough out of our offices when he showed up wanting to meet with the head or our PR department at the time. On his way out he said "You have not heard the last of me". And he was right. About 90% of the book is correct. We got advanced copies of each chapter faxed to us since someone in our office knew someone in the publishers office. We would make 20 copies and pass them around. People were saying either "how did he find out about that" or "that never happened". I was amazed at the inside information he was able to obtain. Having worked at the Johnson's home serving them at dinner parties and managing the 6 corperate apartments along with at one time 6 offices in the city. I was prevy to alot of things happeneing behind the front of RJR Nabisco. After the LBO and the new regime came in, this book became required reading for all new interns. I found it funny. The new execs were just like the old execs. They just learned to hide it better. I was informed that anyone's name that appeared in the book was audited for the next 5 years by the IRS. I recommend this book but if you think this does not go on anymore, you need to take the blinds off.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read if you like business and wonder how take overs, and more importantely, how the inner workings of wall street works. From big egos to big deals this book is exciting to read.
TRJ1298 More than 1 year ago
Of the 10 or 12 business books I have read this year in the wake of the recent market dislocation, this one is hands down the best-- and it was written decades ago. The 20th anniversary update section at the end is helpful for understanding where the characters stand in life now, though many of them are so popular that a google search easily locates them. The authors do an excellent job providing a colorful backstory to give stronger meaning to the significance of the transaction itself relative to the historical background of the companies involved and the origin of the players. In addition, the narrative is skillful at capturing details of multiple dynamics occurring simultaneously among the different factions engaged in the battle without the flow devolving into a disjointed jumble. For the technical readers prone to nitpicking, no editorial problems at all in the original text and only two problems appear in the updated 20th anniversary chapter. Finally, the authors do a good job protraying the participants in a way that leaves the reader feeling that the authors didn't play favorites and that judgments about the participants were reasonable and fairly presented. Oh- and the story is rich in detail. Amazing detail, actually, with the asterisked/footnoted explanations lending exceptional credibility to the story's nuances. A+.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Maria:looked at june and grabbed her wrist bringing her to res two. Jine:is dragged away
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This business book reads like fast paced fiction. The authors have done an incredible job bringing the characters to life.
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RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
Some things - namely, greed and reckless behavior - never change. The leveraged buyout (LBO) of RJR Nabisco occurred in the late 1980s, but the 20th anniversary edition of this classic tale of excess reads as if it were reported and written today. Money-hungry CEO Ross Johnson and power-grabbing financier Henry Kravis remain relevant archetypes of their times. Journalists Bryan Burrough and John Helyar vividly capture the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the deal of the decade. getAbstract especially enjoyed the update on Johnson, Kravis and the rest, and recommends this book to those seeking a revelatory, page-turning account of high-profile greed.
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A girl was dragged in limp and unconsious and laid down in the middle of the room. Her blonde hair falling over her face
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im bored.