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Carl Icahn sinks his teeth into latest target: Family Dollar

June 6, 2014, 10:43 PM UTC
Scott Eells / Bloomberg / Getty

Carl Icahn has bought a 9% stake in discount chain Family Dollar Stores, becoming the retailer’s biggest shareholder and the latest activist investor to take an interest in the struggling company.

“Hope to continue our streak of value enhancement,” Icahn said in a tweet on Friday afternoon to announce his investment.

Icahn is known for pressuring companies to make major changes in their businesses including selling off pieces, kicking out board members and firing executives. His most recent headline grabbing battle was with eBay (EBAY) earlier this year. Icahn’s other relatively recent targets have included Apple, which he pushed to increase share buybacks, and Forest Labs, which agreed to be sold. Both fights yielded big returns.

Icahn did not detail his plans for Family Dollar. But the company is a frequent target of investor agitators. In 2011, Nelson Peltz unsuccessfully tried to buy Family Dollar for at least $7 billion via his Trian Group investment vehicle. Trian still holds 7.4% of shares, according to Bloomberg data. Paulson & Co, a hedge fund that occasionally tries to push for corporate shake ups, holds 5.7%.

If Icahn’s goal is to sell Family Dollar (FDO), he could face an uphill battle given how little progress Family Dollar has made in catching up to rival Dollar General in recent years, one Wall Street analyst said. Many prospective buyers may now think that Family Dollar it too hard to fix.

“They haven’t been able to narrow the gap with Dollar General,” Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarbrough told Fortune. “I question who the buyer could be in the case of strategic alternatives,”

Family Dollar, which had a market value of $6.9 billion before Icahn’s tweeted his news, has not weathered economic factors like higher payroll taxes and cuts to Food Stamp programs as well as competitors Dollar General Corp (DG) and Dollar Tree (DLTR) have. The retailer, which caters to many lower-income shoppers living paycheck to paycheck, saw sales at stores open at least a year fall 3.8% in its most recent completed quarter, and in April it said it expected more declines in the current quarter. That compares to increases at Dollar General and Dollar Tree.

Family Dollar was in many ways the author of its own misery: it misread its customers last year in expanding its selection of higher priced beauty products and raising prices. It is now reversing course, bringing back more items priced at $1, closing 370 unprofitable stores out of 8,100 (it had 6,800 only three years ago), and slowing its expansion of new stores. It is also widening its assortment of food items as U.S. shoppers try to save on their grocery bills.

Icahn is also likely to face stiff opposition from CEO Howard Levine, who owns 8.2% of Family Dollar shares, but is also the son of Leon Levine, who found Family Dollar in Charlotte, N.C., in 1959.