RJR Nabisco taps ConAgra chief for chairman, CEO Harper, 65, was close to retirement

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- At a time when its stock has crested and senior executives seem to be heading for the exits, RJR Nabisco announced yesterday that it had coaxed Charles M. Harper away from ConAgra Inc., where he is the chairman, to be its new chief executive.

The appointment, which takes effect Monday, means that the man who started Healthy Choice foods after having recovered from a heart attack will soon be running a company that gets more than half its $15.7 billion in sales from cigarettes.


Mr. Harper, who smoked until his heart attack, was traveling last night from Omaha, Neb., where ConAgra is based, to New York to confer with RJR Nabisco executives, and was unavailable for comment.

But Jason Wright, a spokesman for RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp. in New York, the parent, said the company was simply looking for a good marketer. "Packaged goods are packaged goods," he said. "That's probably not much of an issue."


Until yesterday Mr. Harper, 65, who is known as "Mike" by associates and friends, was believed to have been preparing for a routine retirement. He had reduced his role at ConAgra in September when he relinquished the chief executive title that he had held since 1976.

Now he joins Stanley Gault, another feisty sexagenarian, who vaulted to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. from Rubbermaid Inc. instead of hanging up his hat, as a seasoned chief executive for whom the challenge of turning around a behemoth was just too tempting to pass up.

In Mr. Harper's case, the offer to forgo retirement for a chance to suit up again apparently came from Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., the huge buyout firm that controls RJR Nabisco.

Kohlberg, Kravis had become acquainted with Mr. Harper's talents in 1990 when it negotiated with him to sell Beatrice Foods to ConAgra for cash and stock worth $1.34 billion. As part of the deal, Kohlberg, Kravis received two seats on the board and got some common and preferred stock in ConAgra that it sold a year later at a profit of more than $300 million.

Two months ago, Kohlberg, Kravis had announced that Lawrence R. Ricciardi, general counsel for RJR Nabisco, and Karl M. von der Heyden, RJR Nabisco's chief financial officer, would jointly assume the chief executive post at RJR Nabisco that had become vacant when Louis V. Gerstner Jr. left to run International Business Machines Corp.

Yesterday, RJR Nabisco said Mr. Ricciardi, 52, would stay on in the newly created post of president while Mr. von der Heyden, 56, would take early retirement.