Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco


Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

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“Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar is a compelling and detailed account of one of the most dramatic and significant leveraged buyouts (LBO) in corporate history — the takeover of RJR Nabisco. This book is not just a business narrative but a gripping tale that reads like a thriller, depicting the greed, power struggles, and corporate excesses of Wall Street in the 1980s. Burrough and Helyar, through exhaustive research and engaging storytelling, bring to life the characters and events that shaped this monumental corporate saga.

Key Themes

  • Corporate Takeover and Greed: The book vividly illustrates the extent of corporate greed and the mechanics of a leveraged buyout.
  • Wall Street in the 1980s: Provides an insider’s view of the financial and corporate culture in Wall Street during the 1980s, marked by excesses and a relentless pursuit of wealth.
  • Power Struggles and Corporate Politics: Details the intense power dynamics and politics within RJR Nabisco and among the Wall Street firms involved in the buyout.

Historical Context

The events in “Barbarians at the Gate” occurred during the late 1980s, a period known for its corporate excesses, financial speculation, and the prevalence of leveraged buyouts. The RJR Nabisco buyout became emblematic of this era, showcasing the heights of corporate ambition and the perils of financial overreach.

Notable Chapters/Sections

  • “F. Ross Johnson’s Gamble”: Focuses on the CEO of RJR Nabisco, his leadership style, and the initial steps leading to the LBO.
  • “The Bidding War”: Captures the intense and dramatic process of bidding for RJR Nabisco, involving major Wall Street firms.

Author’s Background

Bryan Burrough and John Helyar were reporters for The Wall Street Journal who covered the RJR Nabisco takeover. Their deep understanding of financial journalism and access to key players provide a well-rounded and insightful perspective on the events.

Impact and Legacy

“Barbarians at the Gate” has become a classic in business literature, widely regarded as one of the best books on corporate and financial reporting. It is often cited for its detailed portrayal of a pivotal moment in American corporate history.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths: The book’s in-depth reporting, vivid storytelling, and character development make it an engaging and informative read. Weaknesses: Some readers may find the level of detail overwhelming, and those looking for a more analytical or economic perspective on LBOs might need supplementary materials.

Comparative Analysis

Compared to “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis, which also explores Wall Street culture, “Barbarians at the Gate” offers a more focused narrative on a single historic corporate event, providing a deep dive into the complexities of a major LBO.

Who Should Read This?

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and the history of Wall Street. It’s also highly recommended for readers who enjoy detailed narratives of real-world corporate dramas.

Similar Books

  • “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis: Chronicles the author’s experiences as a bond salesman on Wall Street during the 1980s.
  • “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis: Explores the housing bubble and financial crisis of the late 2000s.
  • “Too Big to Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin: Details the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, focusing on the collapse of major financial institutions.

Final Thoughts

“Barbarians at the Gate” is a masterful, detailed narrative that brings to life one of the most significant events in corporate America. The book not only provides a snapshot of an era but also offers timeless insights into the nature of corporate ambition, financial engineering, and the complexities of high-stakes business dealings.


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