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Burrough and Helyar are two former Wall Street Journal reporters who present a comprehensive telling of the battle for control of RJR Nabisco, ultimately won by KKR, led by Henry Kravis in 1988. The book was written in 1990 and provided the final chapter on the LBO excesses of the 1980's. By 1990, the stock market rally had made LBO's less attractive and some of the earlier deals were already starting to unravel and collapse under the weight of the debt payments, as predicted by long-time junk bond critic and rival RJR Nabisco bidder Ted Forstmann.

There are some criticisms of this book. The authors, despite their finanical backgrounds, seem to prefer story-telling to financial details. Hence, they have written a tale of personalities, with an especial interest in Ross Johnson and Henry Kravis, to the detriment of really explaining the financial and business details. The reader can learn intricate details about Johnson and the Wall Streeters preferences in cars, apartments, drinks, wives, schoos, etc. The authors seem to think we need a biographic account of all minor players, starting with their grade-school years, and the end result is 528 pages and still minimal financial explanation.

The other main criticism here, reading this now, is how dated the material has become. The authors would do well to provide some new material on how the deal has worked out. From other sources, I learned that KKR renegotiated the deal in the early 1990's (the resets were nearly toxic after all) and sold out their position entirely in 1995, more or less breaking even, depending on whose numbers you use.

The story of the final bids and the final final bids is truly riveting and meticulously researched here. The Johnson group ultimately presents a bid that is slightly higher than the KKR bid, but the board discounts the Johnson bid since it does not guarantee the bond pricing, and calls the whole thing a tie, much like the 2000 election. At that point, the Board accepts the KKR bid, for non-economic reasons, mostly bad publicity related to Johnson's greed. Ironically, Johnson had already given up much of his payout in order to boost the total value of the bid to the shareholders.


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