Skip to Content

Bill Ackman’s holy war

Pershing Square's Bill Ackman and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International's Michael Pearson InterviewPershing Square's Bill Ackman and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International's Michael Pearson Interview
Hedge fund titan Bill Ackman.Photograph by Scott Eells — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activist investors play an important role in keeping business honest. They provide a check on free-spending CEOs and counter the inherent tendency of big companies to drift into bureaucratic sclerosis.

In his nearly three-year battle against Herbalife, however, activist Bill Ackman has done something entirely new. His goal has not been to improve the company but to annihilate it. And he is using every tool at his disposal—his wealth, his connections, his cozy relations with my colleagues in the press—to achieve that goal.

Conventional wisdom holds that hedge fund billionaires are driven by greed. Something else moves Ackman. If motivated by greed alone, he would have taken his profits and bolted long ago. Herbalife is his holy war, his white whale. He must kill it, whatever it takes, and he is utterly convinced of the righteousness of his cause.

He is righteous, but is he right? Herbalife has clearly engaged in some sleazy business practices in its history. But most of those seem to be in the past. Ackman claims to be working on behalf of those abused by Herbalife’s multilevel-marketing business model. But the victims are surprisingly difficult to find. He calls it a pyramid scheme. But pyramid schemes are by definition unsustainable, while Herbalife is in its 35th year.

Ackman is a smart guy, and perhaps he knows something we don’t. Even so, who made him judge, jury, and executioner? We have healthy—some would say too healthy—regulatory agencies in this country whose job it is to police such things. Do we need a billionaire hedge fund
investor in the game as well?

Don’t take my word for it. Read Roger Parloff’s deeply reported, scrupulously fair, and beautifully told account of this very bizarre corporate saga. Then draw your own conclusion.

Ellen Kullman Dupont CEO Ellen Kullman has faced off with activist Nelson Peltz. Photograph by Richard Drew — AP

And speaking of activist investors, you will find that the name Nelson Peltz shows up three times in this year’s list of the Most Powerful Women in business. He has tussled with a trio of our top 10: PepsiCo CEO (PEP) Indra Nooyi (No. 2), DuPont CEO (DD) Ellen Kullman (No. 5), and ­Mondelez CEO (MDLZ) Irene Rosenfeld (No. 9).

Rosenfeld fell to the ­combined pressure of Peltz and Ackman when she broke Kraft (KRFT) into two companies in 2011, and remained CEO of the global business. Now Peltz, who won a seat on her board, is at it again, with Ackman, pressuring her to cut costs or increase revenue.

Nooyi cut a better deal, sticking to her strategic guns and giving a Peltz ally, former Heinz CEO Bill Johnson, a seat on her board. Kullman took the toughest line. She refused to cave in and has become something of a folk hero among the CEO crowd for defeating Peltz in a shareholder vote.

My colleague Pattie Sellers has raised the question of whether Peltz has a problem with women. After all, only 24 of the CEOs on the Fortune 500 list are female. Why have three of them made his bull’s-eye? Perhaps it is a coincidence. In any event, this is clear: The women who make it to the top of our Most Powerful Women list are tough. They can hold their own in a street fight.

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine.