An oil painting of Napoleon’s Battle of Friedland hangs in the offices of billionaire investor Carl Icahn on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It is an image painted by Ernest Meissonier of the victory of the French troops over the Russians, a decisive triumph for the Bonaparte empire. One of Wall Street’s most feared sharks, a man who bankrupted and woke corporations, counting dozens of CEOs among his victims, and someone who amassed immense wealth through the arts of intrigue of the board of directors, makes a reflection: Napoleon was undoubtedly a great strategist but he lost everything because of arrogance. “It doesn’t stay around forever if you’re not careful,” Icahn says in a recently premiered documentary.
Carl Icahn: the restless billionaire –an HBO documentary– is a portrait of one of the most influential and feared men in the American market. The investor rejects the “corporate raider” label coined by the trade media that made him famous in the 1980s. With a net worth of around $16 billion, Icahn prefers the term “activist investor,” someone willing to work on behalf of small shareholders. His work revolves around driving the necessary changes, however painful, within the top management of companies in order to increase their value. This strategy, implemented since the 2000s, allowed him to reach a place in the top 50 of the richest of Forbes (at number 43). His company employs more than 20,000 people and generates approximately $10 billion in annual revenue.
Frankly, I earned this money because the system is so bad. Not because I’m a genius
Bruce David Klein, documentary filmmaker, specifies that Icahn, 86, has never feared a confrontation within a management board, the battleground of the billionaire for decades. His story began in the late 1970s when he attempted to take over Tappan, a kitchen appliance manufacturing company. The son of a schoolteacher and a synagogue cantor, Icahn was a student with an unfinished medical degree as well as a successful broker specializing in options trading, and he devised a strategy to remove the CEO of Tappan , which finalized the acquisition of a rival. The hostile shareholder called the deal a disaster and convinced board members that the stock price, then at $7, was below potential. Time proved him right when Swedish company Electrolux bought Tappan a few months later for around $18 a share.
Today, at 86, Icahn is far from retirement. His days begin with several hours of exhaustive reading of the press. Although cameras capture him playing tennis at his exclusive Hamptons mansion on the East Coast, there is a phone with multiple lines next to him whenever he appears seated in the documentary. His wife, Gail Golden, describes him as a “bulldog” who only stops when he gets what he wants. He prefers to sum up his vision in one word with a strong Queens accent: winning. A state of mind linking him to Donald Trump, under whom the billionaire served as special adviser during Trump’s presidency until mid-2017.
The media continue to provide detailed reports of his most recent movements. More recently, he left energy company Occidental after three years of investing, generating more than $1 billion in profits. A few days ago, he got into a proxy fight against McDonald’s, buying 200 shares of the burger company and appointing two women sustainability experts to its board. Icahn has set a goal to keep the restaurant chain on track with the commitment it made a decade ago to end the use of large-scale pig farms that abuse pregnant animals. It remains to be seen how successful he will be in this latest endeavor. Over the past year, McDonald’s has seen its share price increase by 18%. The fast-food chain is far from navigating the same murky waters as the businesses that Icahn the Hacker usually rounds up.
A life dedicated to investing has taken him to multiple industries and businesses such as Hertz, Netflix, eBay, Texaco, Uniroyal, Caesars and Tropicana casinos, in addition to MGM Studios and Lions Gate, among others. It has never been without controversy. In the mid-1980s, he was able to test the advice he kept for others when he became president of TWA. The experiment was one of his worst failures. In 1992, the airline declared bankruptcy after having the flight attendants’ union as the company’s main opponent.
Another episode of failure came during his time at Marvel, one of today’s most recognized brands. Icahn fought a battle against Ronald Perelman, another Wall Street titan who also gained a reputation as a corporate raider after changing the fortunes of cosmetics giant Revlon. In 1989, Perelman bought Marvel, which had a 70% market share, for $82 million. His management was a disaster. The clash of egos led to a series of budget cuts resulting in the layoff of artists and writers, diluting the quality of the comics and forcing fans to turn their backs on them. In 1996, the company held only 25% of the market, due to file for bankruptcy at the end of that year. “The only thing Icahn accomplished was a toxic exchange of insults [with Perelman]“, points out Dan Raviv, journalist, in his book Comic Wars. A few years later, Marvel would play one of the most successful comebacks in decades.
His closeness to Donald Trump has added to his controversy in recent years. In 2019, federal authorities launched an investigation into whether Icahn received inside information from his role as a White House adviser (for which he received no salary). In early 2018, his company sold its stake in crane manufacturer Manitowoc for $30 million. The operation took place months before the Trump administration imposed new tariffs on US steel imports. Icahn denied the allegations. In the documentary, the millionaire explains on camera what many consider a fluke in the game of capitalism. “Honestly, I made this money because the system is so bad. Not because I’m a genius.