Executives, doctors and specialists climbed up to podium one by one Thursday to try to win over the investors of Herbalife International of America, Inc.
The company is a "global nutrition company" they said, and not an unsustainable pyramid scheme as activist investor Bill Ackman described it in a three-hour presentation called 'How to be a Millionaire' on Dec. 20.
In a presentation to analysts and investors, Herbalife's chief executive Michael Johnson explained passionately, but carefully, how the "unfortunate slandering" of Mr. Ackman and his hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management got it wrong, and invited his executives to offer up their own facts to counter his "incredible negativity."
Herbalife describes itself as a health-products company that sells nutrition and weight management items through its distributors. It is supposed to work as a multi-level management company, such as Avon or Mary Kay.
Mr. Ackman took issue with the company's business model after his team researched the company for a year. He took a short position on the stock and promised to donate all his profits to charity. When the public found out Ackman was shorting, the stock dropped 12 per cent.
Things seemed to be going Mr. Ackman's way when reports surfaced that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the company.
But in the Herbalife presentation, company president Des Walsh said the business model is more like Costco, where it can be hard to know who the end consumer is. Customers aren't locked in, and research done by the company suggested that 90 per cent of customers, when asked, said they would buy the product again.
Mr. Walsh described himself as being most hurt by Mr. Ackman's descriptions of the distributor-founded "nutrition clubs" that make smoothies and sell products to local customers while offering support and hugs. "I know in this community, hugging probably isn't something you do a lot," he joked with investors.
While some of the clubs aren't much to look at from the outside, they represent "real Americans," he said. In an accompanying video, some Canadian centres were also featured.
Herbalife also brought in Anne Coughlan, a professor from the Kellogg School of Management, to have an independent and "unbiased" look at the company. Her research interests include distribution channels, sales force management and compensation, according to the school's website.
Ms. Coughlan outlined the differences between multi-level marketing models and pyramid schemes and said she found nothing to suggest that Herbalife isn't a legitimate business.
Herbalife's recovering shares got a jolt of support on Jan. 9, when another well-known hedge fund manager, Dan Loeb of Third Point LLC, said his firm had acquired a stake in the business.
Mr. Loeb called the accusation of pyramid scheme "serious" in a letter to investors, and said the idea that regulators have overlooked such an issue for the 32-year lifespan of the company is "preposterous." To add to that – the business is actually doing pretty well, coming off a solid year where volume, revenue and earnings are all growing, he said.
In response to news that Mr. Loeb had taken a position in the company, Mr. Ackman put out a press release saying he supported the move. "The outcome of this investment is not about Pershing Square or anyone else who is long or short the stock. To the extent another investor, long or short, brings additional sunlight to the situation, we welcome them," he said in the statement.
Sunshine is also what Walsh is hoping for, describing his company as one that makes customers feel warm and wonderful. "We've been here 32 years, and we'll be here 32 years from today," he told investors.
In thirty minutes following the presentation, the executives took questions. One analyst at the event asked if there was any incentive for Herbalife to proceed as a public company, or whether going private might work better. But while Walsh laughed and said the company could self-fund much of its business activity, he insisted that Herbalife likes being a public for "a lot of reasons."
As one of the Herbalife executives predicted, this is likely just the beginning of a long debate. Already, Mr. Ackman has released another statement saying Herbalife's meeting "distorted, mischaracterized, and outright ignored large portions of our presentation." He plans to respond to Herbalife soon.