2011-06-09 / Top News

The barbarian in our midst: A chat with Ross Johnson

BY SCOTT SIMMONS


Ross Johnson stands with Maltz Jupiter Theatre Managing Director Tricia Trimble (left) and Mr. Johnson’s wife, Susan, during a Maltz gala kickoff party held last fall. 
COURTESY PHOTO Ross Johnson stands with Maltz Jupiter Theatre Managing Director Tricia Trimble (left) and Mr. Johnson’s wife, Susan, during a Maltz gala kickoff party held last fall. COURTESY PHOTO Twenty years ago, F. Ross Johnson was a household name.

The former RJR Nabisco chief’s $15 billion bid to take the company private led to a bidding war with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. That bidding war ended with Kohlberg Kravis winning RJR Nabisco for $25 billion.

It was the biggest transaction of its day, and it left Mr. Johnson out of a job.

But losers still can be winners: Reports say he walked away from RJR Nabisco with an estimated $60 million in salary and benefits.

During the takeover battle, he was featured on the Dec. 5, 1988, cover of Time magazine.

Later, he was portrayed by no less than James Garner in a television drama about the RJR deal called “Barbarians at the Gate.”

Now that RJR deal is in the history books, and Mr. Johnson is enjoying his retirement in Jupiter.

Instead of showing up on magazine covers, he is more likely to appear at a golf tournament or a theater opening.

“Easy, there. You don’t want to take my arm off,” he says as he shakes hands with a reporter during an opening night at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

He laughs, talks for a moment and heads into the theater.

That’s nothing new for Mr. Johnson, always known for affability and business acumen.

Now that he has retired, he can relax at his home in a gated community.

That home is impressive, like the man.

Roses bloom outside the courtyard that leads to the front door. The butler greets you at the door, and announces you.

It’s casual, yet formal. The butler, who is dressed in jeans, chats for a moment, and refers to his boss as “Mr. J.”


Ross Johnson, at right, and on the cover of Time magazine in 1988. 
COURTESY IMAGES Ross Johnson, at right, and on the cover of Time magazine in 1988. COURTESY IMAGES Somewhere off in the distance, Mr. Johnson’s dachshunds bark a greeting.

Mr. Johnson is wrapping up a phone conversation with his son Neil, who runs the family business, RJM Group.

His high-ceilinged office is paneled. Windows open out onto a patio area that overlooks a swimming pool and the golf course beyond. A large portrait of Mr. Johnson hangs behind the desk at which he is seated.

Photographs of Mr. Johnson with President Richard Nixon hang near the door, along with a framed copy of that Time magazine cover.

Mr. Johnson is tall and fit. His hair is white, but he still looks like the 57-year-old on the magazine cover.

He is relaxed now, and looks back on his career with pride.

Mr. Johnson was born in 1931 in Winnipeg to immigrant parents — his mother was from Scotland and his father, from England.

“I went to work at 14 or 15,” he says. “I always had a job. I was selling magazines, and had a paper route.”

His parents were professionals.

“They did very well. My mother ended up at University of Manitoba as assistant controller,” he says. “My father worked his way up in management at Schlage Lock Co.”

Schlage later was bought by Ingersoll Rand Corp.

“And lo and behold, I was on the board of Ingersoll Rand,” Mr. Johnson says.

Mr. Johnson attended the University of Manitoba, where he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor of commerce degree.

The total cost of his education there? $1,500.

“And that covered the whole four years,” he says.

He earned a graduate degree from the University of Toronto, and worked for a time as an accountant at Canadian General Electric and as vice president of merchandising for the T. Eaton Co., then Canada’s largest department store chain.

He later was named president of Standard Brands Ltd., then negotiated a merger with Nabisco, and later still, a merger between Nabisco and R.J. Reynolds.

After that, he was named president and

CEO of RJR Nabisco.

Mr. Johnson attributes his success at Standard Brands and RJR Nabisco to the people he hired.

“You can get money, but it all turns on people,” he says. “In the end, we had 90,000 people working for us. … It’s all in how good you are in bringing competent people in.”

Life after RJR Nabisco

After his career ended at RJR Nabisco, he took a step back.

“I had already been doing things for 35 to 40 years. I’d had enough of public life,” he says.

Today, his son Neil runs the family investment company, RJM Group, based in Atlanta.

But Mr. Johnson says he keeps on top of things and is a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal. “It keeps you up to date and scares the hell out of you,” he says with a wry grin.

And one suspects that you can’t put a price on his experience.

“People still ask for advice, but I’m 79. So many people want me to get back into things, but I don’t have the technical side of it,” he says with a laugh. “But I could read balance sheets.”

Besides, this isn’t the 1980s.

“It’s much tougher now than in my time. In the business world, it is far different than what I was faced with.”

Really?

“We didn’t have competition from China. Or from India,” he says. “We’re not competitive in many areas. The same technologies are still there.”

Then, it’s a question of strategy.

“Look at failing companies,” he says. “They don’t have a strategic plan or don’t know what it is.”

Sometimes the past can teach us a lesson.

“It’s how you run your business,” he says. “Go back to the Rockefellers and the robber barons.”

You have to accept failure and move on.

“You can’t bat a thousand,” he says. “If it looks like you are striking out, you get out with a minimum of casualties.”

Charity work

One area in which he is batting a thousand is with Palm

Beach County charities.

His wife, Susan, helped usher in a new generation of fund-raising at local charities by co-chairing last year’s Maltz Jupiter Theatre gala and this year’s Loggerhead Marinelife Center gala. The couple hosts a lavish pre-gala kickoff party at their home each year for the Maltz.

Mr. Johnson also is a benefactor of the Honda Classic golf tournament.

It’s a tournament of which he is proud.

“They’ve taken this thing and have grown it,” he says. “They’re getting the best players.”

Retirement means more time for golf — Mr. Johnson says he plays a couple times a week and does stretching exercises, but adds, “I’m not neurotic about it.”

Still, that keeps a man on the cusp of 80 in top form.

“I’m in better shape now than I was at the top of the game,” he says. “ I just didn’t have the time.”

The Johnsons share their home with the two dachshunds, named Chien Chaud and Saucisse.

That’s French for Hot Dog and Sausage, right?

“Oui,” Mr. Johnson answers.

They typically spend their summers in Canada, with Chien Chaud and Saucisse in tow.

He laughs, you smile and he answers one question you’ve been waiting to ask.

Yes, he has met James Garner, who portrayed him in “Barbarians at the Gate.”

“He used to come out to the Dinah Shore Open,” Mr. Johnson says. “It was terrific.”

Mr. Johnson says he had no say in the casting of “Barbarians.”

“They could have cast me with Danny DeVito,” he says. “Some angel was looking out after me.” ¦¦

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