Robert Schaeberle, Who Led Nabisco in Merger, Dies at 88

Former Nabisco CEO Robert Schaeberle
Former Nabisco Chief Executive Officer Robert Schaeberle. Source: Nabisco Inc. via Bloomberg

Robert Schaeberle, who led Nabisco Inc., one of America’s leading snack makers, into the 1981 merger with Standard Brands Inc. that set the stage for the defining battle of the leveraged-buyout era, has died. He was 88.

He died on Sept. 29 at the Ridge at Riverwoods, a continuing-care community in Exeter, New Hampshire, according to Brewitt Funeral Home. The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, the New York Times said, citing his son, Robert.

On paper at least, Schaeberle and F. Ross Johnson, head of Standard Brands, shared power atop the combined and renamed Nabisco Brands Inc. starting in 1981. Schaeberle became chairman and chief executive officer; Johnson was president and chief operating officer.

In practice, Johnson led a “cultural revolution that would transform Nabisco,” Bryan Burrough and John Helyar wrote in “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco.” The book detailed the bidding war that led to what was, at the time, the largest takeover in Wall Street history -- Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.’s $30.1 billion purchase of RJR Nabisco in 1989.

Melding Styles

Johnson made sure his generous policies toward executive pay and perks spread through Nabisco, and he “moved to mold Nabisco’s business mix to his own tastes,” the authors wrote. “On its face it was an impossible task -- Nabisco’s vast, entrenched bureaucracy seemed impervious to change -- but with his newfound sway over Schaeberle, Johnson made steady progress. It was always Johnson initiating, Schaeberle assenting; Johnson spinning out sweet reason, Schaeberle accepting it.”

After three years, Schaeberle retired and Johnson became CEO. Johnson went on to lead Nabisco through its merger with R.J. Reynolds in 1985. His attempt to take the company private in a leveraged buyout opened the bidding war for the company in 1988.

Johnson, 79, who went on to run RJM Group, an investment firm in Atlanta, said today in a statement that he and Schaeberle “became very close friends” after the merger creating Nabisco Brands, and that their work had long-term positive results.

“The merger was highly successful and in 1985, Nabisco Brands was sold to R.J. Reynolds forming RJR Nabisco, again, creating a very successful new company,” Johnson said in the statement e-mailed by his office. “In 1989, RJR Nabisco was sold providing a significant return to its shareholders. The merger was one of the largest and most successful of its kind. Bob Schaeberle was a key executive in the success of the sale of RJR Nabisco Inc.”

War Veteran

Robert M. Schaeberle was born on Jan. 2, 1923, in Newark, New Jersey. He graduated from Dartmouth College in the class of 1945 after serving three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander.

At Dartmouth, an economics professor assigned him to write a paper on a company of his choice, he told Forbes magazine in 1980. Paging through a Moody’s publication, he chose National Biscuit Co. -- what would become Nabisco.

He began working for the company in 1946 and became chairman and CEO in 1973.

He was founding chairman of Morris Tomorrow, a nonprofit group focused on improving the quality of life in Morris County, New Jersey. Nabisco, now a unit of Kraft Foods Inc., is based in East Hanover, part of Morris County.

His first wife, the former Barbara Slockbower, died in 1981. His second wife, also named Barbara, died in 2003. Survivors include his three sons and their families.

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