Carl Icahn’s offices carry a distinct museum quality. Three decades of scalps, resulting from some of the most famous hostile takeovers, proxy fights and board assaults in American financial history, cover every cranny of his wood-lined corridors. There are model airplanes from TWA—the takeover that cemented his name among major league dealmakers—and toy trains from ACF Industries, which has served as his cash machine for decades. Lucite tombstones recount conquests involving many of the great companies of the 20th century, from MGM to Motorola, Texaco to Nabisco.
Yet Icahn’s backward-looking perch, near the top of Manhattan’s old-school GM Building, has never been more relevant, as forty something billionaires like Michael Dell and Bill Ackman are learning to their chagrin. In the last 15 months, the 77-year-old has taken positions in and then launched campaigns against 14 companies, a burst that has made him, at an age when he would have long been expected to fade away, the most disruptive individual in business, with a hand in almost every major corporate story in America.
One moment he’s launching a full-blown bid to snatch Dell from its eponymous founder. The next, he’s needling deepwater driller Transocean to pay out a gusher of a dividend. When there’s good news at Netflix, money managers shake their heads at Icahn’s timely investment. And if you stand in his way? His fingerprints were all over the resignation of Chesapeake Energy’s notorious Aubrey McClendon. Meanwhile, his live CNBC brawl with Ackman, who’s on the other side of his position in controversial vitamin company Herbalife, lit up trading floors around the world.
All of which leaves Icahn decidedly … relaxed. His face gives it away: He now sports a scholarly white beard, a byproduct of a recent jaunt to Miami. And his demeanour backs it up: Icahn sold his 177-foot yacht because he got bored spending time on it; the investor has discovered that, for him, happiness means pursuing his activism actively.
“What else am I going to do?” Icahn asks rhetorically. “Sit at boring dinner parties?” He says this with a wave of the hand, leaning back in his chair. He’s a few days away from making an unsolicited bid for Dell, recently valued at $25 billion, offering to put up a $5 billion equity commitment funded almost completely out of his own pocket. Yet he’s as nonchalant as if he were mulling whether to help a buddy open a Dairy Queen franchise. Clad in a blue blazer with gold buttons, he calmly sips on a straw that delivers Coke from a crystal cup. “We’re at the top our game,” he says. “There’s never been a better time to do what we do.”