Everyone in the room knew about leveraged buyouts, often called LBOs. In an LBO, a small group of senior executives, usually working with a Wall Street partner, proposes to buy its company from public shareholders, using massive amounts of borrowed money. Critics of this procedure called it stealing the company from its owners and fretted that the growing mountain of corporate debt was hindering America’s ability to compete abroad. Everyone knew LBOs meant deep cuts in research and every other imaginable budget, all sacrificed to pay off debt. Proponents insisted that companies forced to meet steep debt payments grew lean and mean. On one thing they all agreed: The executives who launched LBOs got filthy rich.
“The wolf is not at the door,” Johnson said. No corporate raider was forcing him to do this. “This is simply the option that I think is best for our shareholders. I believe it is a doable transaction, and it can be done at prices much higher than the present stock price. We’re not far enough along this road to make firm conclusions or make a proposal at this point, though.”
Johnson stopped a moment and looked at each of the directors: mostly current and retired chief executives, their median age was sixty-five. They had given him a free hand running RJR Nabisco, and hadn’t objected when he wrenched it from its century-old North Carolina home and transformed it into a monument to nouveau-riche excess. But they had struck down his predecessor for lesser transgressions than the one he was now committing.
“I want you to understand one thing,” Johnson continued. “You people will have to decide. If you think this isn’t the answer or there’s a better idea, there will be no hard feelings. I just won’t do it. There are other things I can do, and I’ll do them. We’ll sell food assets. We’ll buy back some more of our stock. I have no problem walking right back upstairs, going to work on plan B, and no hard feelings.”
Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader cum Washington lawyer, was the first to speak. “Look, Ross, if you go ahead with this thing, there’s a real likelihood this company is going to be put in play. Somebody might come along and buy this company for more than you can pay. You might not win. I mean, who knows what could happen?”
—From 1989’s Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by journalists Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Their bestseller followed the multiple players involved in the 1988 bidding war for the tobacco and food giant, which resulted in its $25 billion leveraged buyout, at the time the largest in history.