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Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  29,539 ratings  ·  794 reviews
A #1 New York Times bestseller and arguably the best business narrative ever written, Barbarians at the Gate is the classic account of the fall of RJR Nabisco. An enduring masterpiece of investigative journalism by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, it includes a new afterword by the authors that brings this remarkable story of greed and double-dealings up to date twenty year ...more
Paperback, 592 pages
Published December 13th 2005 by HarperBus (first published January 1st 1990)
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Dan Walker I'm not familiar with the Anchor Hocking LBO, however from Barbarians it does not appear to me that LBOs are bad for society. An undervalued stock inc…moreI'm not familiar with the Anchor Hocking LBO, however from Barbarians it does not appear to me that LBOs are bad for society. An undervalued stock increased approximately 70% in value in about 2 months: nearly $2B in checks were mailed to residents of Winston-Salem after it was all done. Need to do some more research, but the last article I read in the 90s on the RJR Nabisco buyout maintained that KKR would make only an average return on its buyout. If there is anything wrong with LBOs, IMO it would be that so much money is concentrated in such a small place - Wall Street. However, SEC regs only make things worse by creating barriers to entry for competitors.(less)

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May 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Read this in 1991 just after it first came out. I couldn't put it down. If you don't understand the financial pages of newspapers and the terms they use, this is an easy way to learn about acquisitions, hostile takeovers, liquidity, assets, etc. Perhaps a bit dated now, but the author (a financial journalist) describes what happened here in the States in the 80's, a time when small businesses (and huge ones like RJR Reynolds) were bought out, sometimes just for the land they were built upon. The ...more
Oct 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nonfiction
I try to rate books based on how well they achieve their own objectives, and I think this one nails its goals perfectly. Corporate finance is labyrinthian by nature--to understand what actually happened in any given deal requires being able to track the money, the legal manuverings, and the easily ignored but incredibly critical personal relationships. (When I was a child, I thought that business deals were made based off of what was most profitable for the company. It turns out in real life, fa ...more
Nov 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
Barbarians at the Gates is a fascinating tale about the rise and fall of food giant Nabisco. Ross Johnson was head of Nabisco’s rival Standard Brands. They show how he used his affable personality and his ability to befriend coworkers, bosses and over-seeing boards to propel himself to Standard’s CEO while winning a battle against his superior and getting his superior ousted. Nabisco had gained competition from Frito Lay and Proctor Gamble so it looked to expand, buy merging with Standard Brands ...more
Nick Black
Jan 01, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: yuppie-bullshit
went up to the parents' house over christmas, and found this in the garage, and was like "what? the parents don't read books" and, worried it might be mistaken for a delicious meal, grabbed it. there's some purple fucking prose in this book! Here's how not to write compelling narrative, kids:

The atmosphere at Tuesday morning's breakfast between Cohen and Kravis was no worse than that inside any commercial meat locker.

It's about as bad as All the President's Men, but the material kinda saves the
Nov 25, 2008 rated it liked it
This tsunami of details in this story of the leveraged buy-out of RJR Nabisco would be mind-numbing if it were not for the sharp anger at the incessant and insatiable greed it highlights.

One feels an eerie sense of déjà vu reading this book. The RJR Nabisco takeover battle was fought in 1988, but the unmitigated (and unregulated) greed on the part of Wall Street seems to only have changed in form, not in magnitude. It borders (then and now) on the obscene.

This book is not for the faint o
Sean Sullivan
Jul 19, 2007 rated it really liked it
If you haven’t noticed, I am a connoisseur of the business bestseller. I read ‘em all, and this one is among the best. This, Den of Thieves and the Informant are as good as these books get. Here we got conniving and scheming on a massive scale. Extremely unlikable rich assholes brought low by equally unsavory, but way smarter rich people.

It’s the story of an attempt to take RJR Nabisco private, and then a series of take over attempts that were instigated by the original privatization plan. Johns
Amar Pai
Oct 09, 2013 rated it liked it
This book is weird. It's written like a taut spy-thriller, and superficially it's a "page-turner"-- everything on the page seemed very exciting and I kept wanting to read it. But the stuff being written about-- the tale of some investment bankers fighting over who gets to buy RJR Nabisco-- is boring beyond belief. Lots of arcana about leveraged buy outs, endless paragraph-long sketches of interchangeable middle-aged white guys engaged in a financial dick swinging contest, pages upon pages devote ...more
Nov 10, 2009 rated it liked it

Detailed - and downright shocking - display of the egos and attitudes of hundreds of real people involved in the biggest private equity buyout of its day (and until relatively recent days). Describes far too many people to follow and too much detail, but the sheer magnitude of greed, excess and penis envy is amazing.

The DVD of the same title gives the abridged version of the story. It's quite hard to follow the story without knowing the background from the book. DVD also emphasizes Linda Robinso

Amy David
If you're at all interested in how investment banking and Wall Street make money by doing nothing of value to society, this is a great read. It's long, but the authors have done a good job of breaking things down and making the narrative suspenseful to the end, even with zero likable characters.

I just wish the latest edition came with an appendix on how to build a guillotine.

Dec 02, 2015 rated it liked it
Corporations back in the day were established to create products and provide services and have certain laws and rights applied to the organization and its employees. Not so starting in the late eighties.

This book chronicles a selling-off of a major corporation in the late nineties: RJR Nabisco.

As the role of CEO has become more prominent the greed and ego of those in positions have risen. At some point a CEO wanted a bigger fiefdom so they thought it would be smart to combine a food company wit
Simon Lau
Oct 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book was recommended to me by a business school professor who referred to it as "the best business book on private equity." As someone who studied finance at NYU and a lifelong student of history, I was intrigued.

The book turned out to be a wonderful read. I learned a tremendous deal about private equity, the mid-to-late century evolution of finance on Wall Street, and the important role of corporate governance in business. Some of these points were not discussed on an academic level (e.g.
Michael Hutchings
Apr 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Any who has an interest in mergers and acquisitions will love this book. Or anyone who has an interest in an absolutely amazing story. And it's all true, which is even more amazing.
Sanjay Vyas
Dec 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business-related
Knowing something of corporate finance, I loved this. The book presumes some familiarity with that topic.

Amazing picture of greed and venality. Very eye-opening.
Oct 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Read this one again. It's worth reading more than once. Still five stars. Even better after reading Benjamin Barber's "Consumed."

It's probably because I don't get around much, but I've only seen one depiction of greed that I thought was funny, and that's the one from The Addams Family, in which Gomez Addams shows the impostor Fester how to get to the money vault by pulling on the book titled "Greed" on the bookshelf.

Then there's the other kind of greed, the greed that is just nasty, heartless, s
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Listened to the abridged audio version. Good summary. Didn’t care for the narrators.
Jun 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The tale of Ross Johnson, the CEO of RJR Nabisco who sets the book's plot into motion, and the frenzied time leading up to the final decision on who'll win the leveraged buy out (LBO) bid and take ownership of RJR Nabisco is fascinating. The authors do an excellent job of providing background for the many people involved in the final bids, much of which is crucial for understanding their motivations and decisions.

For example, the rise of Johnson through the ranks of Standard Brands, the late ni
Preston Kutney
Jun 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business
This book paints a grim picture of high finance and corporate excess. Although I'm fairly certain most of this wouldn't fly today because of how hard it is to keep secrets, and the media's scrutiny of corporate missteps. (a la Volkswagen, Exxon, to name a few recent cases)

Essentially, Ross Johnson rises to CEO of RJR Nabisco through playing politics, scheming with his band of merry men, and schmoozing board members. He constantly shakes up the company because he gets bored easily, and goes snif
Jul 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book displays and describes the nature of the NJR Nabisco management in one of the biggest LBO's ever. Sometimes you have to check, am I reading a kindergarten manifest with grown up words or do these people exist for real? The tactics, backstabbing, gossiping and most of all the foul mouthing is bizarre and thus intriguing.., it's a huge read but well worth it if you're interested in leveraged buyouts, upper management, conglomerate companies and Chief Exec's who have lost contact with us ...more
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
When you run out of Eichenwald books to read, most algorithms point you here. For much of this book, that's an apt recommendation. It's a large, well-sourced, tomb that is a dense tick-tock of a specific corporate situation. The difference, is that Eichenwald tends to exam corporate malfeasance and the ne'er-do-wells getting their comeuppance. Here, well, Ross Johnson & crew to some degree are rewarded (though their malfeasance is not great as Eichenwald's subjects - maybe just their greed). In ...more
Gwyn Wilkinson
Jun 05, 2014 rated it did not like it
Gave up on this, it's written like a soap opera about Great Men who do Important Things without any political or historical context, meaning the more you read the less you feel like you understand. I got it thinking it would be like Liar's Poker, which is an inside look at modern finance's workings and how its people tick, but here the author understands corporate people even less than he understands junk bonds or whatever. If you want to know how corporate finance works, or you want to read a h ...more
Achyuth Sanjay
May 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"You can't make this stuff up."

An absolutely riveting read, chronicling the RJR LBO story from the 80s. The authors have done a really good job at making this eminently readable and accessible, and one doesn't need beyond a basic knowledge of financial instruments to understand most of the things. And the volume of the book only speaks to the sheer journalistic effort they have put into this, while at the same time not allowing it to become boring at any point. It took me a while to get through
Nov 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Business students
I have not read such an exciting business book for a while. "Barbarians" is an outstanding account on the insights of the LBO world, written by two reporters with an appetite for refined ridiculousness. I was amazed at the relevance of the reported absurdities with contemporary criticism on Big Finance, though nowadays the spotlight was set on proprietary and algorithmic trading.

If you are into business case studies or just historical accounts of grand corporate events, this book is for you.
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: big-white-square
"'we were charging right through the rice paddies, not stopping for anything and taking no prisoners.'"

This was FUN! So much so that I went and bought loads of non-fic/faction about Wall Street. What is it with me and the 80s? If I'm not reading about AIDS, I'm reading about Gordon Gekkos.

Anyway, everyone in this is just a monster. And whilst "Barbarians at the Gate" is a doozy title, it's total crap. They're all barbarians. It should be called "A Shitstorm of Evil Bastards".
Feb 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
I started reading this book because it was on the "must read" business book list. I kept reading all 500 pages because it was really, really interesting! Yes, much of that is because I am currently a business nerd, but the way businesses operated at that time, especially with such a large amount of money on the line, is fascinating.

Not for every reader, which is why it is only at 4 stars here, but really a 4.5/5 in my book
Ali Aljawad
Nov 26, 2015 rated it liked it
good and boring at the same time
Mar 28, 2016 rated it liked it
This is an interesting story but WAY too many details. The book is way too long to read.
Ameya Joshi
Sep 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
If you ever thought non-fiction cannot be as exciting as fiction, this is the book to prove you wrong. An absolute page-turner to beat any thriller. I literally powered through the last half of the book over a couple of days – work or no work. As the epilogue says – the raw material for the story was quite crazy and incredible in itself, but the ability of the authors to recreate for us the scenes of not just the few weeks in late 1989 but months and years preceding that is amazing (and god know ...more
May 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It was a bit slow for the first 100 pages or so, but once it got into the actual story I couldn't put it down. It was dramatic, and informative, and helped crystallize a lot of things I'm confused about, like:
- How do companies work? Like in basic economics, you think about market participants each trying to maximize their profits, and everyone acting in their own interest ends up maximizing total welfare, and that makes sense in a zoomed-out way, and as far as I can tell is not a crazy model of
Jun 06, 2020 added it
A deal completely of its time — as of 1988, the biggest leveraged buyout in history. The book, which has been called the best business book ever, is also of its time. It’s mostly straight reporting on the goings-on of “deal guys”. A fair chunk is a timeline of the cut and thrust of competing bids in a frenzied environment, including financing considerations, main deal points and the level of due diligence.

This is not to say that the authors don’t have a perspective on this. With one eyebrow rais
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A book that every mergers and acquisitions analyst and private equity analyst should read. A comprehensive picture of the then largest leveraged buy-out in the history, including the historic formation of the target company, the generous corporate perks enjoyed by a corrupt management and the cunning designs of all participants, many of whom just wanted a piece of the big cake. They are ‘barbarians at the gate’.

It’s even more interesting to look back at the deal after 20 years in the book’s 20th
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Bryan Burrough joined Vanity Fair in August 1992 and has been a special correspondent for the magazine since January 1995. He has reported on a wide range of topics, including the events that led to the war in Iraq, the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, and the Anthony Pellicano case. His profile subjects have included Sumner Redstone, Larry Ellison, Mike Ovitz, and Ivan Boesky.

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“Planning, gentlemen, is ‘What are you going to do next year that’s different from what you did this year?’” he told them. “All I want is five items.” 2 likes
“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.” 2 likes
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