An oil painting of Napoleon’s Battle of Friedland hangs at the offices of billionaire investor Carl Icahn on New York’s Fifth Avenue. It is an image painted by Ernest Meissonier about the victory of French troops over the Russians, a decisive triumph for the Bonaparte empire. One of Wall Street’s most feared sharks, a man who has bankrupted and reawakened companies, counting dozens of CEOs amongst his victims, and someone who has amassed immense wealth through the arts of boardroom intrigue, makes a reflection: Napoleon was undoubtedly a great strategist but he lost everything to arrogance. “It doesn’t stay forever if you’re not careful,” says Icahn 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 US market. The investor rejects the “corporate raider” label, coined by the specialized media who 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 the small shareholders. His work revolves around driving the necessary changes, however painful these may be, at the top management in companies in order to increase their value. This strategy, implemented since the 2000s, has allowed him to reach a spot in Forbes’ top 50 richest list (at number 43). His company employs over 20,000 people with about $10 billion in annual revenues.
Frankly, I made this money because the system is so bad. Not because I’m a genius
Bruce David Klein, a documentary filmmaker, clarifies that Icahn, 86, has never feared a confrontation within a management board, the billionaire’s battleground for decades. At the origins of his story, in the late 1970s, is his takeover attempt on Tappan, a kitchen appliances 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 Tappan’s CEO, who was finalizing the acquisition of a rival. The hostile shareholder labeled the deal a disaster and convinced board members that the share price, then seven dollars, was below its potential. Time proved him right when the Swedish company Electrolux bought Tappan a few months later for about $18 per 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 mansion in the Hamptons, on the East Coast, there is a phone with several lines next to him whenever he appears seated in the documentary. His wife, Gail Golden, describes him as a “bulldog” who does not stop until he gets what he wants. He prefers to sum up his vision in a word with a strong Queens accent: winning. A mindset tying him to Donald Trump, under whom the billionaire served as a special advisor during Trump’s presidency until mid-2017.
The media continues to provide detailed reports of his most recent movements. Most recently he exited the energy company Occidental after three years of investment, generating over $1 billion in profits. A few days ago, he took on a proxy fight against McDonald’s, buying 200 shares in the burger company and nominating two women who are experts in sustainability to its board of directors. Icahn has set a goal of holding the restaurant chain to the commitment it made a decade ago to end the use of large-scale pig farms that mistreat pregnant animals. It remains to be seen how successful he will be in this latest venture. In the last year, McDonald’s has seen its share price grow by 18%. The fast-food chain is far from sailing the same troubled waters as the companies that Icahn the pirate usually raids.
A lifetime devoted to investment has taken him to multiple industries and companies such as Hertz, Netflix, eBay, Texaco, Uniroyal, Caesars casinos and Tropicana, besides MGM Studios and Lions Gate, among many others. He has never been without controversy. In the mid-1980s he was able to put the advice he kept for others to the test when he became president of TWA. The experience was one of his worst failures. In 1992, the airline declared bankruptcy after having the flight attendants’ union as the company’s main adversary.
Another episode of failure came during his time in Marvel, one of the most recognized brands today. Icahn held a battle against Ronald Perelman, another Wall Street titan who also earned a reputation as a corporate raider after shifting the fortune of cosmetics giant Revlon. In 1989, Perelman bought Marvel, which had 70% of the market, for $82 million. His management was a disaster. The clash of egos led to a series of cutbacks resulting in the dismissal of artists and writers, diluting the quality of the comics and causing fans to turn their backs on them. In 1996, the company held only 25% of the market, having to file for bankruptcy by the end of that year. “The only thing Icahn achieved was a toxic trading of insults [with Perelman],” points Dan Raviv, a journalist, in his book Comic Wars. A few years later, Marvel would star in 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 to determine whether Icahn had benefited from insider information following his role as a White House advisor (for which he did not receive a salary). In early 2018, his firm sold $30 million worth of his stake in crane manufacturer Manitowoc. The operation happened months before Trump’s administration imposed new tariffs on U.S. steel imports. Icahn rejected the allegations. In the documentary, the millionaire explains on camera what many consider a stroke of luck in the game of capitalism. “Frankly, I made this money because the system is so bad. Not because I’m a genius.”