By James R. Hagerty

F. Ross Johnson, whose reign as chief executive of RJR Nabisco Co. became a symbol of corporate greed in the late 1980s, died of pneumonia Thursday at his home in Jupiter, Fla., a spokesman said. He was 85 years old.

Mr. Johnson's fame spread beyond the world of business when his exploits at the food and tobacco company were recounted in the book "Barbarians at the Gate," made into a movie with James Garner playing the CEO. Mr. Johnson's audacious effort to take RJR private in October 1988 set off a bidding war in which Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. wound up prevailing with a bid of $25 billion, then the largest corporate takeover in history.

Though Mr. Johnson's investment group was outmaneuvered, he was perhaps the biggest winner, walking away with a "golden parachute" payment of about $50 million.

Even before the bid, the gregarious Canadian-born executive was becoming known for his free-spending ways. In "Barbarians at the Gate," former Wall Street Journal reporters Bryan Burrough and John Helyar wrote that Mr. Johnson and his colleagues crisscrossed the world in 10 corporate airplanes, sometimes dubbed the RJR Air Force.

The Atlanta-based company stored its jets in a hangar next to a three-story waiting area with floors of Italian marble and a walk-in wine cooler. Mr. Johnson had two dozen country club memberships, and his two maids were on the corporate payroll. His office at RJR headquarters in Atlanta featured a $51,000 vase, a $36,000 end table and a $100,000 rug.

A sports enthusiast who played basketball in college, Mr. Johnson hired big-name athletes including Jack Nicklaus and Rod Laver to attend corporate events and schmooze with customers. RJR sponsored the annual Nabisco Dinah Shore Invitational golf tournament as a way of entertaining grocery executives and others whose help was needed in selling company products including Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Camel cigarettes.

Brushing aside quibbles about costs, he once advised a colleague: "A few million dollars are lost in the sands of time."

His friends included Bobby Orr, Frank Gifford and other sports figures. Though he lived a luxurious life, Mr. Johnson also sometimes drove a Jeep and lunched on peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches.

As an executive, Mr. Johnson was known for attacking bureaucracy and clearing out poorly performing executives, but those who made the cut were well-paid. "I'd rather pay twice as much and have half as many people," heonce said.

He moved fast, even if that outraged the company's old-timers. Within weeks of becoming CEO of RJR in January 1987, Mr. Johnson announced the company would shift its headquarters to Atlanta after 112 years in Winston-Salem, N.C.

His roots were modest. An only child, he was born Dec. 13, 1931, and grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His parents were Irish immigrants. His mother worked as a bookkeeper, and his father was a sales manager.

The younger Mr. Johnson earned a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Manitoba in 1952 and a master's of business administration four years later at the University of Toronto.

He held finance and marketing jobs at Canadian General Electric and then became vice president for merchandising at T. Eaton Co., a retailer. His next stop was GSW Inc., a Canadian maker of appliances, where he served as president and chief operating officer.

In 1971, Mr. Johnson joined the Canadian unit of Standard Brands Inc., a New York maker of food and alcoholic beverages. He rose to CEO of the parent company in 1976. Eager for more scale, he initiated a merger with another big food company, Nabisco Inc., in 1981. Though he took the No. 2 job initially at the newly created Nabisco Brands Inc., he was made CEO in 1984.

Then, in 1985, Nabisco Brands merged with the cigarette giant R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc., creating RJR Nabisco, with 135,000 employees and 250 manufacturing plants.

After leaving RJR in the late 1980s, he served on numerous corporate and charity boards and ran RJM Group Inc., an investment and management firm based in Atlanta. He had homes in Jupiter, Fla., and La Jolla, Calif. He was given an Order of Canada award in 1986.

Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife Susan, two sons and two granddaughters.

Write to James R. Hagerty at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 31, 2016 00:58 ET (05:58 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.