John Wayne advertising for Camel Cigarettes in Reynolds’ heyday
RJ Reynolds became king of tobacco in 1958; the same decade that it became clear smoking causes lung cancer. If the adage “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” could ever be applied, it rang true for tobacco’s new industry leader. Starting in the 1950’s, Reynolds found itself inundated with wrongful death lawsuits which continued for decades. This legal trouble, combined with new market pressure from Philip Morris and the Marlboro brand, began years of decline for Reynolds. In an effort to raise profit margins with more efficient production, Reynolds planned to open a series of massive, modern factories in and around Winston-Salem. When the first of these factories was complete in 1986, plans for all of the other factories had to be placed on hold due to Reynolds continued financial decline. With the opening of the new plant, Reynolds’ remaining employees faced yet another hurdle; working with technology. Reynolds had to pay many of its employees to go to Forsyth Tech so that they could learn how to do their jobs alongside computers. As the push toward modern production continued, the leadership of Reynolds realized that many of its long-time employees did not even know how to read and write.7 Times were changing, and Winston-Salem was struggling to keep up.
These changes coincided with the bankruptcy of Mclean Trucking. When McLean declared bankruptcy, it was the 5th largest trucking company in the country, and boasted 10,000 employees, 1000 of whom worked at its headquarters on Waughtown Street in Winston-Salem. The next year, the leadership of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, now “RJR Nabisco,” was ceded to an outsider in the largest corporate takeover in American History. The new boss, F. Ross Johnson, moved Reynolds’ headquarters from Winston-Salem to Atlanta. In 1987, RJR Nabisco lost 2000 more jobs as a part of a leveraged buyout, and would go on to shed another 5000 jobs over the next 3 years.8 This constituted a tremendous moral blow to Winston-Salem, a city now facing both economic and identity crises.
Johnson’s actions landed him on the cover of Time Magazine, bringing national atention to Winston-Salem’s growing calamity.
1 Langdon E. Oppermann, “Winston-Salem’s African American Neighborhoods: 1870-1950,” (Winston-Salem: Forsyth County Joint Historic Properties Commission, 1994) 9.
2 Frank Elliott, From Tobacco to Technology: Reshaping Winston-Salem for the 21st Century, Winston-Salem: Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, 2016) 3.
3 Ibid, 2.
4 “CPI Inflation Calculator,” Bureau of Labor and Statistics, accessed November 5th, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.
5 Elliot, 2.
6 Ibid, 3-4.
7 Ibid, 4-5.
8 Ibid, 6-7.
9 Ibid, 8.
10 Ibid, 5.