Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Does Icahn Still Make them Tremble?

To some people, Mr. Icahn and activist investors of his ilk are the heroes of the financial system. “They are the ones who are holding corporate America’s feet to the fire and incentivizing companies to perform better,” said Frank Partnoy, a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego. Mr. Partnoy contributed to a study that examined activist investing from 2001 to 2006 and found that activists held stocks longer than others and that the companies they pursue often outperform the market.

But some fellow activists contend that Mr. Icahn’s strong-armed methods of arguing to get on a board and then pushing for a quick change — such as paying a dividend, buying back stock, merging with another company or cleaving off an underperforming unit — are sadly out of date in today’s corporate boardrooms.

“There are times when you push back and be harsh and times when you roll up your sleeves and work with management, getting more involved with operations,” said Eric Jackson, an activist investor in Naples, Fla. “Carl’s record on that score hasn’t been as successful.”

Mr. Icahn and his defenders say he has improved several companies he has invested in or owns. (Besides the hedge fund, he oversees Icahn Enterprises, a hodgepodge of companies he has collected over the years in the automotive, metals and real estate industries.)

Late one recent Friday afternoon, Mr. Icahn, a workaholic night owl who rarely appears at glittering high-society functions, dismissed thoughts about going out to dinner with his wife, Gail, or — gasp — taking a bigger break from the business altogether.

“What else am I going to do?” Mr. Icahn asked before returning to his office for a meeting on his real estate holdings. “Play shuffleboard?”

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