Carl Icahn, chairman of Icahn Enterprises Holdings, walks with Robert… (Scott Eells, Bloomberg )
NEW YORK — It's no longer just a war of words.
Corporate raider Carl Icahn has thrown $214 million behind Herbalife Ltd., the Los Angeles-based maker of health foods and nutritional supplements accused of being a pyramid scheme by Icahn's foe, fellow Wall Street tycoon Bill Ackman.
Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday reveal that Icahn purchased more than 14 million shares and options in Herbalife, a nearly 13% stake that would make him the company's second-largest investor. Icahn said he would pursue talks with executives about possibly recapitalizing the company or even taking it private.
Icahn and Ackman have been engaged in a rare public battle for the last month, hurling insults at each other about past dealings and their respective positions in Herbalife. The two foes have bad blood stemming from a business dispute.
Ackman launched his assault on the company Dec. 20 by unveiling a $1-billion short position, or bet, against Herbalife. That same day, Icahn began snapping up the company's stock, according to the SEC filing.
"It's pretty obvious Icahn really wants to turn the screws on Ackman," said Chris Stuart, chief executive of Shortzilla, a Boston-area research firm. "He's put his money where his mouth is, for sure."
Investors saw Icahn's disclosure as reassuring that Herbalife was not going to collapse, as Ackman has predicted. Its shares surged more than 24% in after-hours trading after closing up $1.87, or 5.1%, at $38.27 on Thursday.
"I think he is definitely trying to hammer his good buddy Ackman, but he could also make a lot of money in this," said Timothy Ramey, an analyst with D.A. Davidson & Co. "It's an undervalued stock."
Ackman, who heads the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, says that Herbalife defrauds its low-income distributors. His wager against the company pays off if its stock falls.
Herbalife hit back by saying the hedge fund manager was misinformed about the company and made an irresponsible bet with his investors' money. The company pointed to its 32 years in business as evidence that it is not a pyramid scheme.
Icahn sees Herbalife as undervalued and believes that the company has a "legitimate business model, with favorable long-term opportunities for growth," the filing says.
This is just the latest chapter in a long history of Icahn trying to exert influence on companies and their boards of directors in hopes of either motivating a merger or having his stake bought out at a premium.
In the 1980s, he famously took over airline TWA and immediately liquidated most of its assets. Since then, he's taken big stakes or controlling positions in companies including RJR Nabisco, Viacom, Marvel Comics, Blockbuster and Netflix.
Neither Icahn nor Ackman responded to requests for comment. Herbalife also declined to comment.
The battle over Herbalife is becoming a Wall Street spectacle, with money managers supporting either team Ackman or team Icahn.
Robert L. Chapman Jr., managing member of Chapman Capital in Manhattan Beach, who said he has invested in Herbalife, wrote in an email: "Carl Icahn just delivered Bill Ackman a Valentine he'll never forget."