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Pershing Square CEO Bill Ackman (Neil Wilder (photo), Don Rokicki (grooming))
Pershing Square CEO Bill Ackman (Neil Wilder (photo), Don Rokicki (grooming))

2012 CEO OF THE YEAR

ROB Magazine’s CEO of the Year: Bill Ackman Add to ...

“More” isn’t about adding to his considerable net worth—he has made more than enough money, thanks. He and Karen, a former landscape architect, have promised to give away at least half their wealth as part of the Giving Pledge, an initiative started by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. No, Ackman gets his biggest kick from blowing the whistle on offside corporate officials who are damaging businesses or shareholder values. “In corporate America, if you are a whistle-blower, you are probably going to lose your job,” fumes Ackman. “A lot of forces come into play where the little guy can get smashed.

“I can do what I think is right. I am not worried about losing my job. I am not worried about feeding my family. I am very fortunate to do what I believe.”

* * *

Pershing Square occupies a surprisingly small footprint in a steel and glass tower facing Carnegie Hall. In the wake of Sandy, the building would be shut down for nearly a week because of a splintered high-rise construction crane looming nearby. It would also force us to relocate a planned photo shoot with Ackman—already a source of stress for the camera-shy exec. (“He hates having his photo taken,” says assistant Joelle Dellis. “I have a collection of little stuffed toys that I wave at him so he can relax for the photographer.”)

But on this day, Sandy is still lashing the Caribbean, and it is business as usual at Pershing, where the firm’s 51 employees—putting the assets under administration at over $200-million per staffer—are practised in the art of chasing after their boss.

As Ackman moves from the lobby into a large room divided by pods of desks and a few glass-walled offices, a young man sprints into Ackman’s office with a thick printout of the PowerPoint presentation he is scheduled to make later that morning at Goldman Sachs. On his desk—where, sometime during his brief trip to Asia, his six-year-old has left a note saying, “I love you Daddy”—are stacks of messages, documents and investment reports. One of the notes highlights that morning’s announcement from CP of its first quarterly results under the administration of Ackman’s hand-picked CEO, Hunter Harrison.

Ackman is running late for a 10 o’clock meeting with his father, Larry, who sits in an office two doors down from Bill’s corner perch. He’s waiting to discuss family business with a son he describes as “busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”

Ackman sticks his head into the room to crow about the CP results. In early-morning trading on the TSX, the railway’s stock is cresting above $92 a share, a gain of more than $4.

“Not bad,” he says breaking into a big grin.

“What about our meeting?” his father blurts as Ackman retreats.

“Sorry, not this morning.”

“Can you believe it?” Larry says, raising his hands to the ceiling. “I had a 10-minute appointment. Ten minutes, he can’t do with me.”

To be fair, Ackman is juggling a staggering array of charity and family obligations on top of his latest—and biggest ever—play. Two months after his Canadian conquest, Ackman acquired a $2-billion stake in consumer products giant Procter & Gamble Co., which, like the railway, has disappointed shareholders with a limp stock price. More recently, he unleashed a series of barbed public attacks against Toronto-based conglomerate Brookfield Asset Management, in an effort to force the sale of a Chicago shopping mall company in which Brookfield and Pershing Square are both investors.

Ackman appears to have made more noise than progress with his latest plays, prompting one Wall Street wag to mutter, “He has gotten ahead of his skis.” The shareholder activist bristles at the criticism. He declines to talk about Brookfield, but says he has “an excellent working relationship with the board” of P&G. And he doubts he’ll ever again have to pressure a board by launching a proxy battle.

After CP, he says with a grin, “What board is going to say no and face a complete rout?”

* * *

Ackman has never lacked confidence. He grew up in the leafy New York suburb of Chappaqua, where his parents placed a priority on raising their kids to be competitive and self-assured. “We thought the best way to do this was to ensure they were good at a sport,” says Larry Ackman, 73. The chosen pursuit was tennis; Bill and his older sister, Jeanne, began training with a personal coach when Bill turned 10.

The strategy worked. By high school, Jeanne (now a radiologist) was a state and county champ, and Bill had secured a county title. On the court, young Bill developed one of the traits that would help in his activist career: persistence. “He had tremendous drive,” says his dad. “He hated losing. He would get very angry with himself when he made mistakes.” Bill also developed a talent for catching his opponents off guard. “He was always hitting the ball where nobody expected it, and he didn’t telegraph where it was going,” remembers Larry.

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