NEW YORK (AP) — F. Ross Johnson, the former RJR Nabisco CEO depicted as the epitome of corporate greed in the best-selling book and movie “Barbarians at the Gate,” has died. He was 85.
The Aycock-Riverside Funeral and Cremation Center in Jupiter, Florida, said Johnson died Thursday.
Born in Canada in 1931, Johnson became CEO of RJR Nabisco in 1986, which at the time was the largest consumer goods company in the world, maker of both Oreos and Camel cigarettes. Johnson controversially elected to move RJR Nabisco’s headquarters to Atlanta, from its historical home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In October 1988, Johnson and a group of investors proposed taking Atlanta-based RJR Nabisco private, which started a month-long fierce bidding war for the company among Johnson’s group of investors, Wall Street banks and major private equity companies, including Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts.
KKR eventually won the bidding war, paying nearly $25 billion or RJR Nabisco. It was the largest private equity deal in history at the time and helped bring private equity firms, once a small part of Wall Street, into mainstream knowledge.
Wall Street’s fierce bidding war, as well as Johnson’s notoriously opulent lifestyle, was dramatized in the book “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco,” a best-seller later made into a made-for-TV movie. Johnson was depicted as an example of corporate greed and vanity, with RJR Nabisco owning several corporate jets for Johnson’s private use, and numerous country club memberships paid for by the company.
And even though Johnson failed to take RJR Nabisco private, he walked away with an estimated $50 million in salary and bonuses as a golden parachute. Johnson never ran a major company after he left RJR Nabisco and effectively retired to Florida.
RJR Nabisco was eventually split into two companies in the late 1990s. Nabisco is now owned by Mondelez International, and RJR became the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of Reynolds American.
Johnson is survived by two sons and two granddaughters as well as his wife Susan.