Does Nelson Peltz have a problem with women?
The billionaire activist investor, who takes stakes in big-name companies and demands board seats and strategic overhauls, is now gunning for DuPont (DD), where Ellen Kullman is chairman and CEO. Peltz’s move against DuPont, where he wants Kullman to give him four seats on the board of directors, comes on the heels of his power plays at two other woman-led companies: Indra Nooyi’s PepsiCo (PEP) and Mondelez International (MDLZ), which is headed by CEO Irene Rosenfeld.
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In fact, Peltz has targeted three of the most renowned women leaders among the 25 female chiefs in the Fortune 500. Is Peltz a certified woman CEO-chaser?
Peltz declined to comment for this story. The website of his company, Trian Partners, explains that he likes “public companies with attractive business models that … trade significantly below intrinsic value due to operating underperformance.” In a 2007 profile of Peltz, Fortune’s Shawn Tully noted that he is “the antithesis of fast-moving raiders like Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman. His goal isn’t to grab a quick buck by forcing targets to over-leverage their balance sheets to pay for huge share buybacks or special dividends—it’s to build value through improving operations.”
Certainly, Peltz has agitated plenty of male chief executives—at such companies as Heinz, Tiffany (TIF), Cadbury Schweppes, Wendy’s (WEN), Family Dollar (FDO) and 20 other companies led by men—but his recent run on companies led by Fortune Most Powerful Women makes people wonder if he enjoys sparring with female CEOs…maybe because the women are even tougher than the guys?
The female chiefs whom Peltz has targeted are indeed tough and formidable bosses. Kullman, Nooyi and Rosenfeld grew up as star student-athletes (Kullman and Rosenfeld played basketball; Nooyi competed in cricket in her native India) and became first-generation glass ceiling busters and fiercely competitive business leaders. Nooyi is No. 3 in Fortune‘s latest MPW rankings; Kullman and Rosenfeld are Nos. 5 and 7. respectively.
When she was CEO of Kraft, Rosenfeld wrangled with Peltz for several years before spinning off Mondelez in 2012. Peltz joined the Mondelez board a year ago. Meanwhile, Nooyi has rebuffed Peltz’s campaign to split PepsiCo into separate snack and beverage companies—and his idea of combining the snack unit, Frito-Lay, with Mondelez, whose brands include Oreo and Ritz and Toblerone. Last year Nooyi cited the results of a strategic review showing that splitting PepsiCo would lead to lost synergies. A turnaround in PepsiCo’s performance has lately protected Nooyi from Peltz, although he and his Trian managers have been talking to PepsiCo shareholders and could wage a proxy fight for board seats this spring, as he is now doing at DuPont.
At DuPont, Kullman is defending her performance (sales and earnings have lagged some targets, but the stock has significantly beaten the market since she became CEO in 2009) and the conglomerate structure of the 212-year-old giant. In addition to nominating four hand-picked directors (himself and three other men) to the DuPont board, Peltz has proposed that the company split into three pieces—agriculture and nutrition, industrial materials, and performance chemicals—to free up costs and compete more efficiently. Kullman has engaged with Peltz consistently since he bought into the company and began agitating for change in mid-2013. During the past 18 months, she and/or DuPont CFO Nicholas Fanandakis have talked with Peltz or Trian representatives 10 times; DuPont’s lead independent director, Eaton CEO Alexander Cutler, has talked with Trian seven times. Trian owns 2.68% of DuPont, worth about $1.8 billion.
The 72-year-old Peltz, a college dropout (from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School), built his fortune off of his family’s tiny Brooklyn-based frozen food business and a hefty dose of junk-bond financing. Today, he commutes from his Bedford, New York, home—a 27-room mansion on a 130-acre estate—to his office on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. There he has a loyal team of about 50 people, most of them men who have been with him since he founded Trian in 2005.
The silver-haired Peltz has been quite, um, productive with women in his personal life. He has 10 children, including eight with his third wife, Claudia, a former fashion model.