(Adds Pershing statement, amount of Herbalife financial penalty)
By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., May 3 (Reuters) - After years of discord with a prominent hedge-fund manager, a federal investigation and bad publicity, Herbalife Ltd Chief Executive Officer Michael Johnson is taking a victory lap.
At the Milken Institute Global Conference this week, Johnson touted the wares of his nutritional supplement maker, offering free shakes and protein bars to billionaires, and painted Herbalife not as a company that narrowly avoided being classified a pyramid scheme, but as part of the solution to an obesity epidemic.
“Our company has been under scrutiny but we are a nutrition company,” Johnson said on a panel called “Leading a Healthy Life.”
“We are in a real mess because people don’t take care of themselves,” he added. “Our company helps with that. That’s my advertisement.”
The conference, which Herbalife co-sponsored this year, gathers influential people from around the world to discuss solutions for problems with technology, health, education, finance and public policy, among other things.
Johnson’s stance on stage and around the event was markedly different than the defensive one he had to maintain for much of the past five years.
In December 2012, hedge-fund manager William Ackman unveiled a $1 billion bet against Herbalife in a withering, hours-long presentation. He painted the company as a crooked enterprise that preys on low-income and minority communities, pretending salespeople can get rich by selling Herbalife, but really bleeding most of them dry financially.
Ackman has accused the company of being an illegal pyramid scheme numerous times, and even starred in a recent documentary about Herbalife called “Betting on Zero” to explain his position. But as it stands, he is losing out.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission probed the matter, and eventually reached a settlement with Herbalife. It involved a $200 million penalty and requirements that the company reform some of its business practices.
Even though the government failed to label Herbalife a pyramid scheme and permitted it to keep operating, Ackman has felt vindicated. He has said that the restructuring requirements will harm Herbalife’s business and ultimately cause the firm to collapse.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, a Pershing Square spokesman again alleged that Herbalife operates illegally and said Johnson should not feel like he has won any battles.
“The FTC confirmed substantially all of Pershing Square’s findings,” he said. “It has required the company to ‘fundamentally restructure its business’ and to pay one of the largest consumer protection fines in history.”
Meanwhile, Ackman’s Wall Street rival, hedge-fund manager Carl Icahn, has profited handsomely by taking the other side of the bet. He began buying Herbalife shares in 2013 while extolling the company and challenging Ackman in television interviews. He has since become Herbalife’s top shareholder.
The high-profile battle sent the company’s stock price on a wild ride. It hit a low of $24.24 after Ackman’s 2012 presentation, but soared with Icahn’s support. It closed at $62.46 on Wednesday.
The Herbalife bet was a big loss for Ackman’s hedge-fund firm, Pershing Square Capital Management.
The stock would have to fall into the low $30-range to become profitable for Pershing, which suffered double-digit losses in 2015 and 2016. The bulk of the losses came from Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc although Herbalife also hurt in 2015. Herbalife cost Ackman more in the first quarter of this year, though his main fund swung to gains last month and is now up 1.9 percent year-to-date.
For Johnson, the outcome has been nothing short of a personal victory, and his demeanor at the event showed it. He plans to retire in less than a month, having built a small fortune at the helm of Herbalife for more than a decade.
“There was all this news agitated by a short seller,” he said on the panel. “Fake news.”
By day at the event, Johnson spoke of Herbalife in altruistic terms, saying its nutrition clubs are a place where people can not only buy its nutritious shakes and treats, but find camaraderie with others. At night, he mingled with jetsetters at the exclusive Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel.
Outside of the pavilion where Johnson was speaking, guests were treated to free Herbalife shakes and protein bars. There were some murmurs from some at the venue about Herbalife issuing a voluntary recall for the peanut butter version of the snacks on Tuesday, due to trace amounts of undeclared fish allergen.
One conference attendee sipping a banana-flavored shake joked about its less-than-appetizing appearance: “Yeah, I know I‘m taking risks here. But I‘m into high risk.”
Although the conference features some of the most powerful global hedge fund managers, Ackman has never attended. This week, he was in London to launch a Pershing Square investment fund on the London Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Beverly Hills, Calif.; Additional reporting by Lawrence Delevingne; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra, Bernard Orr and Lisa Shumaker)