Born into a lower-middle-class family, Johnson used a military cadet scholarship program to attend the University of Manitoba where he graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and was a member of the fraternity Phi Delta Theta. He went on to earn an MBA from the University of Toronto in 1956. He first worked as an accountant for Canadian General Electric in Montreal and as a vice-president of merchandising for the T. Eaton Company before being named president of Standard Brands Ltd.
Johnson negotiated a merger between Standard Brands and Nabisco with Nabisco CEO Bob Schaeberle in 1981. Soon after, Shaeberle left Nabisco and Johnson took the helm replacing many Nabisco executives with ones from Standard Brands. After growing restless, he went into talks that led to the Nabisco-RJ Reynolds merger in 1985. He was soon appointed President and CEO of RJR Nabisco. Johnson appeared on the December 5, 1988 cover of Time Magazine. After dismal stock performance following the 1987 Stock Market Crash, Johnson decided to put the company in play. Originally, he planned to execute a management-led leveraged buyout with Shearson Lehman Hutton. Events quickly escalated into a takeover contest.
Following the RJR Nabisco takeover by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. led by Henry Kravis, Johnson started his own private investment company, RJM Group, Inc., based in Atlanta, Georgia. Until he resigned in March 2009 he was Chairman Of AuthentiDate Holding Corp., a United States publicly traded company. He serves on the board of directors of several companies including Bentley Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Johnson also serves on the advisory board of Power Corporation of Canada.
He was made a trustee of Duke University and served on the advisory councils of several universities. He has been honored with the United States Silver Medal of Patriotism; the Versailles Award of France and made an Officer of the Order of Canada. The Distinguished Visitors Program at the University of Toronto Centre for the Study of the United States was endowed by Johnson in 2001.
Johnson maintains homes in Caledon, Ontario, Jupiter, Florida and Sparta Township, New Jersey. He was extensively profiled in the book Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Wall Street Journal columnists and in the movie of the same name (see Barbarians at the Gate). In the movie, Johnson was portrayed by James Garner.
Read more about this topic: F. Ross Johnson
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