Pining For The Eighties
January 1 1992 by Joe Queenan
One of the most successful entrepreneurial ventures of the 1980s were “fantasy” baseball weekends: mini spring-training camps set up in Florida resorts where, for a fee of around $3,000, avid baseball fans could spend the weekend tossing around the old horsehide with the heroes of their youth: Ed Kranepool, Mudcat Grant, Ron Santo. The fantasy camps were a quintessential 80s phenomenon, allowing affluent young men in their thirties and forties to mix it up, talk it up and yuck it up with the sports legends who had made their youthful dreams come true. The idea was so successful that by the end of the decade even pathetic franchises like the Chicago Cubs, which had not won a pennant since 1946, were represented in fantasy camps, affording young men who had always dreamed of finishing a distant second a chance to hang out with a bunch of sports legends who had, in fact, always finished a distant second.
Seeking to capitalize on this concept, a New York entrepreneur has begun marketing Fantasy Corporate Raider Weekends, at which young investment bankers nostalgic for the glory days of the 1980s can spend three days with the heroes of their youth. John Abercrombie, a retired synthetic futures trader, says he got the idea at a party a few months back when 12 thirty-something investment hankers started trading war stories about the glory days of the 80s.
“We were sitting around watching the movie Wall Street, when suddenly everyone started to get all choked up,” reports Abercrombie. “Just like that, it came flooding in on us that four years had passed since any of us had used the words ‘undervalued assets,’ `maximizing shareholder value,’ `exploiting synergies,’ or ‘replacing the equity stub with PIK Preferred cram-down paper.’ Just like that, we all realized that a big chunk of our lives-the halcyon days of our youth-was gone forever.”
“With Milken gone, the S&L crisis still unresolved, and the junk bond market still in complete disarray, we’re not going to be seeing a return to the glory days of corporate takeovers for a long, long time to come. Guys miss that. Guys miss a simpler, bygone era when a nobody like Nelson Peltz could waltz in, borrow around $5 billion, and take over an industry he knew nothing about. They miss an era when a complete schlub like Bill Farley could show up, become the Underwear King overnight, and then announce plans to run for president. They miss an era when a zany Canadian mall builder could apply for a loan for $11 billion and take over the two largest department store chains in the country, no questions asked. They miss an era when giants walked the earth-and borrowed gigantic amounts of money they had no prospects of repaying-from everyone.”
Luckily, those youngsters who long for the glory years of the 80s now have Abercrombie’s Fantasy Corporate Raiders Weekends to keep the fires alive. The weekends take place in a hotel in Wilmington, DE. Explains Abercrombie, “Although most of the great 80s numbers crunching and repackaging of the subordinated debentures into third-tier mezzanine tranches took place in law offices up in New York, the real battles of the 1980s were fought down here in Delaware Chancery Court, where the various poison pills and antitakeover defenses were adjudicated. Hotel rooms are cheap, so we can hold down the price of the weekends.”
The weekends are an unforgettable experience. Over in the Fontainbleu Room, deposed Shearson-Lehman-Hutton CEO Peter Cohen will have the gang in stitches demonstrating how he once blew smoke rings into Henry Kravis’s face during the Barbarians at the Gates era. Over in the Flaubert Room, Bob Campeau will be overheard recounting the tale of how he, an unknown Canadian, got First Boston and Citicorp to lend him $11 billion to take over Allied and Federated.
“It was no big deal, hey,” explained the Ontarion oligopolist. “I said, `I’m Robert Campeau, hey, and I’d like to take over the two biggest department store chains in America, hey, and I’d like you to lend me $11 billion to do it, hey, and I don’t know anything about this business, hey. And they said, ‘No problem.’ “
Of course, nostalgia is king at Fantasy Corporate Raider Weekends. Over in one corner, you’ll see Bruce Wasserstein explaining how he earned such mammoth fees during the takeover binge. “Figure out how much debt the potential leveraged entity can possibly handle, and then add three zeros,” says the irrepressible Bruce. A few feet away, Joe Perella is signing autographs: “Joe Perella (friend of Bruce Wasserstein, and important investment banker in his own right).” Not fifteen feet away, Jerome Kohlberg, who is to KKR what Pete Best was to the Beatles, is explaining why he still thinks that RJR Nabisco buyout was such a bad deal. And over at the bar Fantasy Weekend participants are watching Drexel takeover specialist Jeff “Mad Dog” Beck wolf down a box of Dog Yummies just as he supposedly did in F. Ross Johnson’s office during the KKR takeover. Everyone seems to be having a splendid time.
But there’s no way that John Abercrombie is resting on his laurels.
“We’re already working on a Fantasy Insider Traders Weekend, with Levine, Boesky, Siegel, the whole gang. They’re a part of Americana, a part of our cultural legacy, and for a lot of young investment bankers who pine for the 80s, there’s nothing more enticing than being able to tell their grandchildren, “I spent a weekend with Ivan Boesky learning how to hide fifties in a secret compartment of an attache case.” Eat your heart out, Mays and Mantle.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal.