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Former Reynolds CEO Johnson dies, leaves controversial legacy

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F. Ross Johnson (Journal file photo)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — F. Ross Johnson, the former top executive of RJR Nabisco and perhaps the most vilified businessman in local history, died Thursday of pneumonia at age 85, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Johnson’s death was confirmed by a spokesman, multiple media outlets reported Saturday.

Johnson came to Winston-Salem in 1985 as part of selling Nabisco Brands Inc. to R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc. for $4.9 billion.

Soon after he took over as RJR Nabisco’s chief executive in January 1987, he let loose a wave of management-level firings while substantially increasing the pay of those he deemed as loyal and competent.

Johnson angered the local community by labeling Winston-Salem as “bucolic” as part of justifying his shocking decision to move RJR Nabisco’s headquarters to Atlanta soon after becoming chief executive.