Barbarians at the Gate Review

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Barbarians At The Gateby Bryan Burrough and John Helyar is the thrilling true story of business greed and excess in the 1980’s.

Ross Johnson is the CEO of RJR Nabisco, a massive US conglomerate. After the collapse of the companies’ share price, Johnson is urged to undertake a management buyout of the company by the investment banks of Wall Street. With the company now “in play”, other sharks start to circle. What follows is a thrilling bidding war between rival investors- all eager to secure a slice of the largest takeover the world had ever seen, amounting to a cool $25 billion: the eponymous barbarians at the gates of RJR Nabisco.

It’s a dramatic tale, filled with larger-than-life characters- all caught in the orbit of Ross Johnson, a man who lived life by his corporate jets, his celebrity friends and his respect of men who could “Take an unlimited budget, and exceed it”. Despite proclamations that selling the company was the best way to enrich his shareholders, Johnson still worked to negotiates a deal that would be worth as much as $2 Billion to himself, and the management inner circle at RJR.

It’s a riveting story, covering the backgrounds of many of the men involved, their motivations, and how it drove their actions during the bidding. Written by two Wall Street journal reporters, the tale is immaculately researched and reconstructed from countless interviews with the involved parties. Due to this exhaustive work, it’s an accurate and authoritative book – filled with salient details from the event. This helps to set the tone throughout – everything from the information being leaked to the newspapers, to congressional condemnation as the deal exploded over the financial airwaves. All serves to draw you in, making what could otherwise have been a very tale read into a riveting read.

The book is now a staple of business school reading lists, standing as monument to the financial mania of the 1980’s. What “Wall Street” is to films, Barbarians at the Gate is to books. If you’ve an interest in the dark side of business, read this book!

If you’ve already read Barbarians at the Gate, and you’re looking for something else in this vein, let me suggest the premier book on business hubris:

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long Term Capital Management

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