Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book review: "Rainmaker: The Saga of Jeff Beck" by Anthony Bianco

Jeff Beck was a successful deal-maker on Wall Street during the 1980s. He helped facilitate the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, which made him a minor character in Barbarians at the Gate. Beck was known as "Mad Dog" because of his combat experience during the Vietnam War, and Barbarians depicts him living up to that nickname, eating a bag of Milk Bone dog biscuits that RJR Nabisco CEO Ross Johnson had given him as a joke.

Rainmaker makes it clear that the Milk Bone incident never happened. Neither did Beck's Vietnam exploits, which a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal revealed as fake, as it did with Beck's claims of significant inherited wealth. Ironically, although Beck was a compulsive liar about his background, he had better professional ethics than many of his contemporaries. He refused to do business with Ivan Boesky, being convinced that Boesky was a crook, and tried to get a couple of reporters to investigate the arbitrageur.

Beck was never one of Wall Street's richest people, but he was possibly its most entertaining. His antics included threatening to jump out an office window if he didn't get a deal fee, impersonating a Southern preacher, making a cameo in the movie Wall Street, and recalling his experiences in Vietnam over lunch with Oliver Stone, who had actually served in Vietnam. Stone was taken in.

Despite his successful career, Beck was cynical about deal-making. So is Bianco. He suggests that KKR's phenomenal early returns were a result of the low valuations that prevailed during the late '70s. (The RJR Nabisco buyout, done a decade later at a much higher valuation, produced extremely low returns, and several of KKR's smaller late-'80s buyouts went bust.)

One of Beck's biggest deals was KKR's buyout of Beatrice Foods. Beatrice had thrived in 1950s and '60s by acquiring lots of small, regional food companies. It kept these companies' founders in place to run them as part of a highly decentralized corporate structure. This strategy fared much worse in the '70s as the acquirees' founders retired and heavily-advertised national brands displaced Beatrice's regional brands-- contrary to what The Outsiders would suggest, decentralization wasn't an unalloyed good.

Beatrice's problems grew when a new CEO, James Dutt, took over. Dutt wasted tens of millions of dollars on a media campaign that advertised the company with the slogan "We're Beatrice" when the money would have been better spent on advertising the company's brands. Dutt also spent heavily to sponsor sports tournaments. He had little interest in operational details and reneged on an early pledge to centralize Beatrice's manufacturing and cut costs.

Dutt's tenure at Beatrice was similar to Ross Johnson's tenure at RJR Nabisco and its predecessor companies as described in Barbarians, although instead of merely being venal like Johnson, Dutt grew increasingly unbalanced. His erratic behavior eventually prompted Beatrice's board to fire him, which paved the way for KKR to buy the company.

As its title suggests, Rainmaker is mostly about Beck's career and personal life, but it contains a decent amount of detail about the buyout boom, including some LBOs that aren't well-known today. Bianco is a business journalist, and the book has its share of journalese, but it's still well-written. An interesting read but not essential.

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