Henry R. Kravis is fabulously wealthy, athletic, married to a beautiful fashion designer and even has a wing of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art named after him - and he's only 44.

This week he won the biggest corporate bidding war in history, setting up a deal that will enrich him by tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.But that doesn't mean people have to like him.

Before he decided to lead his investment firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR), into a bidding battle for RJR Nabisco Inc., he enjoyed an excellent reputation on Wall Street as a brilliant, savvy and classy man.

While his toughness and financial genius have never been more apparent, his reputation has taken a beating. Today, the words "ego" and "hubris" are often mentioned in the same sentence with his name.

Industry insiders say the enormous profits Kravis will glean from the RJR Nabisco deal may bring down the wrath of Congress and damage the leveraged buyout (LBO) business he helped create.

Michael D. Easterly, managing director in charge of investment banking in the Southeast for Thomson McKinnon Securities Inc., said his opinion of Kravis has sunk in recent weeks.

"I don't think he has helped LBOs," Easterly said. "You can't help but think this deal involved more ego than business sense. He pushed it beyond the limit."

While he shares power at KKR with his cousin, George R. Roberts, 45, Kravis has become the lightning rod for such criticism because he is widely regarded as the one who insisted upon going after RJR.

Before the RJR Nabisco deal thrust it into the spotlight, KKR was an extremely secretive firm whose name was recognized by few Americans living west of the Hudson River. But even before this deal came along, KKR was an exceedingly wealthy and powerful investment firm.

Currently the partnership is the management and financial force behind at least 23 companies with total annual sales of about $38 billion. KKR has controlling interests in companies as diverse as Safeway Stores, a supermarket giant; Motel 6, a motel chain; Beatrice Cos., a consumer products conglomerate; and Jim Walter Corp., a home construction company.

Once it completes the purchase of RJR Nabisco, total annual sales of the companies in which KKR has a financial stake will reach about $54 billion. If the firm were structured as a conglomerate with subsidiaries, it would be slightly smaller than International Business Machines, making it about the fifth-largest company in America.

But KKR does not view itself as a parent company offering daily management expertise to its subsidiaries. Instead, it has always chosen to act as a short-term financial investor and board member. As a director, KKR serves as an adviser that helps direct the acquired company's cost-cutting policies.

Once it has turned around the acquired company and boosted profits, KKR looks for ways to get out with a profit, either by selling the company to stockholders or to a private buyer.

The firm was founded just 12 years ago as an obscure partnership of three men: Jerome Kohlberg Jr., 63, and the cousins, Kravis and Roberts. The three, who had worked together at Bear, Stearns & Co. in the corporate finance department, decided to specialize in financing buyouts.