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The billionaire Bill Ackman has dominated headlines lately for his bare-knuckle fights against Ivy League schools and the media.
He has called for the firing of top university heads, excoriating them for the way they responded to Israel-Hamas conflict, and condemned them for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI.
In long screeds on X, formerly known as Twitter, he has amplified plagiarism allegations against Claudine Gay, who stepped down from Harvard’s presidency under pressure. Most recently, Ackman has threatened to sue a news organization that published several pieces that accused his wife of plagiarism.
This is classic Ackman. He likes to fight, he digs in, and he doesn’t give up.
In 2013, when a journalist asked him how long he was prepared to stick with one of his boldest — and ultimately ill-fated — bets, Ackman was resolute.
“I’m going to the ends of the earth,” he said.
Ackman’s tactics “disgusted” one top exec
Over three decades, Ackman has gone to war against companies, executives, and other high-profile investors, and developed a reputation for being ruthless and relentless.
He has infuriated many of them. Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, once said he was “disgusted” by Ackman’s tactics of firing off a public three-page letter urging JCPenney’s board to replace its top executive. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn once dubbed Ackman “a major loser,” and said on TV that he was either “the most sanctimonious guy I ever met in my life, or the most arrogant.”
None of this has stopped Ackman, who is now using the same cutthroat techniques he honed at Pershing Square, the hedge fund he founded in 2004, against a long list of new targets.
The battle against Herbalife lasted six years and big losses
One of the most famous corporate fights Ackman waged was against Herbalife, a company that makes nutritional supplements.
In 2012, Ackman bet $1 billion against the company. In an elaborate three-hour presentation he called it a pyramid scheme. That was just the beginning of a scorched-earth campaign to convince other investors — and regulators — he was right.
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Rival investor Icahn didn’t agree with Ackman’s assessment, and the two argued live on CNBC. In the world of business television, that interview was akin to WrestleMania.
“He is like the crybaby in the schoolyard,” Icahn said. “You know, I went to a tough school in Queens, and they used to beat up the little Jewish boys, and he was like one of these little Jewish boys crying that the world was taking advantage of him.” (Both Icahn and Ackman are from New York, and of Jewish descent.)
Icahn soon after that interview revealed that he had made the exact opposite bet, and purchased more than 13% of Herbalife shares.
Ackman lost a lot of money on that wager, but he held on to that fight for years, even as it became clear that the odds were against him.
Letters and presentations in railroad fight ends in resignations
Of course, Ackman’s tenacity has made him a billionaire many times over and also won him fans. For instance, in a 2013 column for “The New York Times,” corporate law professor Steven Davidoff…