The supremely confident billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman has never been afraid to bet the farm that he’s right.
In 1984, when he was a junior at Horace Greeley High School, in affluent Chappaqua, New York, he wagered his father $2,000 that he would score a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the S.A.T. The gamble was everything Ackman had saved up from his Bar Mitzvah gift money and his allowance for doing household chores. “I was a little bit of a cocky kid,” he admits, with uncharacteristic understatement.
Tall, athletic, handsome with cerulean eyes, he was the kind of hyper-ambitious kid other kids loved to hate and just the type to make a big wager with no margin for error. But on the night before the S.A.T., his father took pity on him and canceled the bet. “I would’ve lost it,” Ackman concedes. He got a 780 on the verbal and a 750 on the math. “One wrong on the verbal, three wrong on the math,” he muses. “I’m still convinced some of the questions were wrong.”
Not much has changed in the nearly 28 years since Ackman graduated from high school, except that his hair has gone prematurely silver. He still has an uncanny knack for making bold, brash pronouncements and for pissing people off. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the current, hugely public fight he and his $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, are waging over the Los Angeles–based company Herbalife Ltd., which sells weight-loss products and nutritional supplements using a network of independent distributors. Like Amway, Tupperware, and Avon, Herbalife is known as “a multi-level marketer,” or MLM, with no retail stores. Instead, it ships its products to outlets in 88 countries, and the centers recruit salespeople, who buy the product and then try to resell it for a profit to friends and acquaintances.