Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

Written by:
John Helyar , Bryan Burrough
Narrated by:
Eric Jason Martin

Unabridged Audiobook

Release Date
June 2021
22 hours 18 minutes
#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 at the hands of a buyout from investment firm KKR.

A 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 is 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 of investment firm KKR, 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.
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James L.

This narrative of an epic business battle is particularly strong on presenting how events looked from multiple contenders’ perspectives. The authors were granted interviews, often extensive, with all the major players and many of the lesser lights. The title made me think that the book would take sides. It doesn’t. The book respects the complexities of the narrative without lapsing into choosing heroes and villains. The complexities present one problem with an audiobook. There are so many different people involved that, except for a few of the most important, it can be hard to keep them straight. Wait, that guy who was just mentioned again, I think he’s a lawyer? But for which firm, and which client? If I’d been reading a paper or Kindle book, I would have made a written list of the dramatis personae as I went along. If you listen while doing the dishes or driving, that isn’t practical. The authors wrote for The Wall Street Journal. They follow the common journalistic practice of “Get the name of the dog right” – that is, include details that make the story more vivid even if those details are irrelevant. What happened at a particular meeting is important. That it was held in a conference room that had a ficus tree is not. In fact, at one point the authors follow the practice literally, by expounding on the selection of a name for one executive’s dog. By contrast, they skimp on explaining some of the technical details. They’re probably used to writing for people who already have a basic grasp of the different types of financial instruments that come into play, and what each type of firm does. Even if you don’t have that background, though, the basic story comes through well.

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