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Bill Ackman uses relentless boardroom tactics in war against Ivy Leagues and news

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The billionaire Bill Ackman has been in the headlines lately for the high-profile fights he has been waging with universities and news organizations. Ackman is an investor known for hard-driving tactics. They are part of a playbook he's honed on Wall Street. NPR's David Gura has been reviewing that playbook. He's with me now. Hey, David.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Who is Bill Ackman?

GURA: Well, he's a highly influential hedge fund manager who is also a lightning rod. Ackman has made a lot of money over the years betting big against businesses he thinks are overvalued. Another way he's made billions is by buying big stakes in companies. Then Ackman pressured CEOs to overhaul them, and if they don't do that, he tries to push them out. So suffice it to say those tactics don't make him a lot of friends, Mary Louise. Here's what Ackman said recently on CNBC.

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BILL ACKMAN: Attack before. Remember, if you're an activist short seller, you undergo the most aggressive attacks. So I'm kind of a battle-hardened person, right?

GURA: And Ackman is now bringing that aggressiveness to multiple wars he's fighting.

KELLY: Yeah, including attacks on elite universities, including my alma mater.

GURA: Well, it all started with that. He wanted to bring big changes to Harvard, where he also went to college and grad school - he, like you, a Harvard alumnus. So this was personal. Ackman criticized the university's now-former president, Claudine Gay, for how she responded to protests on campus over Hamas' attack on Israel, but his list of grievances got a lot longer. Ackman amplified plagiarism allegations against Gay, and since then, he's gone after higher education in general, as you said. He says diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs are racist, that they're discriminatory against white people. And what we're seeing in each of these fights is Ackman using tactics that are familiar to anyone who has watched his career on Wall Street.

KELLY: Yeah, I want to understand that better. What are these tactics?

GURA: Well, in corporate campaigns, Bill Ackman is very aggressive. He starts by writing these long, public letters outlining in detail changes he wants to see. He's been doing that now but on the social media site X, where he's written some of the longest posts I've ever seen. Some of them are 5- to 6,000 words long. In the past, he's called on CEOs and board members to resign, as he did in a turnaround he engineered of the Canadian Pacific Railway. That was successful. It made him billions of dollars.

Now, sometimes these fights don't go his way. But even then, Ackman will dig in, and he doesn't give up. That's what happened about a decade ago when he went up against a company called Herbalife, which makes nutritional supplements. Ackman called it a pyramid scheme, and that led to a public attack from one of his rivals, fellow billionaire Carl Icahn.

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CARL ICAHN: He wanted to have dinner once with me. I had dinner with him, and I got to tell you, I left. I couldn't figure out if he was the most sanctimonious guy I've ever met in my life or the most arrogant.

GURA: Icahn bet against him, and what we saw after that was just classic Ackman. He continued that fight for six years, even as he lost a lot of money.

KELLY: Well, and this is all in the service of what, David? Like, what is Ackman's ultimate goal here?

GURA: Well, he wants to see big cultural changes. Most recently, he committed $1 million to Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips, who is running an outsider campaign against President Biden. Ackman's also going after the media. He has vowed to file a lawsuit any day now against the news organization Business Insider. After Ackman posted about those plagiarism allegations against Harvard's former president, Business Insider discovered that Ackman's wife, who was a professor at MIT, plagiarized in some of her academic writings. She's acknowledged that, by the way. She's apologized for it. In 2013, the reporter Maureen Farrell asked Ackman on CNN how long he planned to stick with that big and ultimately ill-fated bet against Herbalife, and this is what he told her.

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ACKMAN: They've never had someone like me prepared to say the truth about the company.

MAUREEN FARRELL: So how long are you willing to wait on your short position?

ACKMAN: I'm going to the end of the Earth.

GURA: Ackman used that same phrase in a post earlier this month. He said he'll pursue societally important issues to the end of the Earth. And Ackman had a message for those who question his commitment, Mary Louise. He said, those people don't know me.

KELLY: Thank you, David.

GURA: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's David Gura.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLO SONG, "SUMMERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.