The spirited bidding for RJR Nabisco by people who want to pay more than $20 billion for the company simply so they can dismember it is testing our ability to think of today's corporations as anything more than highly impermanent grab bags of disposable assets.
Back when the company went by the straightforward name of the National Biscuit Co. and stuck to making biscuits and Shredded Wheat, it was possible to imagine a corporation as having a soul. These days, they change their names and product lines so often it is difficult to keep up.In the old days, we used to have soap companies, biscuit companies, oil companies, steel companies and retail store companies. We used to have an American Can Co., the world's leading maker of tin cans, which went out of the can business and became a financial-services company with a strange name that totally escapes me at this moment.
Anyway, if, as planned, RJR Nabisco gets rid of its food operations and becomes a tobacco company again, who is to say it doesn't make more sense than presenting yourself to the consuming public as an outfit it can trust to turn out wholesome food in one plant and carcinogenic products in another.
Still, it is dismaying to think of all the time and talent being used to put together the biggest deal in corporate history, the most expensive buyout ever contemplated, without anything constructive being created. Any number of people will get exceedingly rich on this deal, but nothing new of enduring value will be the result. Not a plant, not a job, not a product, not a market will be added to the nation's inventory.
Just as dismaying was the news Monday that the Ohio Mattress Co. was on the block. You may never have heard of the Ohio Mattress Co., but since it controls 30 percent of the domestic mattress market, you may well be sleeping on its product. For most of us, it is a comfort to know that we still have an Ohio Mattress Co. and that it is the greatest name in bedding.
The fact that the world's largest manufacturer of mattresses, a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and highly regarded by securities analysts, could in this age of witless and irrelevant corporate nomenclature still be calling itself by a name as prosaic, unpretentious and explanatory as the Ohio Mattress Co. is a reassuring link to the days when America's world economic hegemony was less in question than it is today.
Most likely, Ohio Mattress will be sold either to a cheese company, if there's one left, or to some British conglomerate that owns a lot of ships and has never made a mattress. Non-mattress men will be installed in the chief management positions. The company will announce a scheme to diversify into pharmaceuticals and fast-food outlets. It will start importing cheap Korean mattresses and putting its label on them. It will bring out a new line of inexpensive, disposable, non-biodegradable plastic mattresses that collapse after a year of being slept on. Very soon, mattress sales will double, and the roadsides of America will be littered with mattresses.
At the least, the new owners are likely to change the name of Ohio Mattress to something dreadful like AmSleep or Restco. And in a few years, there will be another buyout. The mattress division will be sold to a competitor to pay off the debt, and soon no one will remember that the surviving corporation was ever a great mattress company.