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Herbalife fires back at hedge fund giant

Michael O. Johnson, chairman and CEO of Herblife Ltd. at his office in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

Herbalife Chief Executive Michael Johnson was tired of a powerful hedge fund manager bad-mouthing his company.

So he put on a show Thursday before hundreds of investors at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan, rebutting claims that the Los Angeles nutritional supplement company is a pyramid scheme. The presentation accused hedge fund giant Bill Ackman of lies and snobbery, compared Herbalife to the Girl Scouts and featured the company’s president entreating that “the world needs more hugs.”

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Who says Wall Street is more boring these days?

The company’s two-hour defense of itself is the latest in a battle since Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management labeled Herbalife as “the best-managed pyramid scheme in the history of the world,” during a similar presentation he made late last month. The outspoken fund manager has made a $1-billion bet that the stock would plunge in value.

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“Just the very nature of the ‘battle’ has never been seen in the history of the Earth,” said Tim Ramey, an analyst with D.A. Davidson and Co. “This was a very, very orchestrated attack.”

Herbalife has hired a battalion of researchers to prove that it has a legitimate and stable business model. Executives held back no punches Thursday before a crowd of investors and analysts, labeling Ackman an elitist who made “false statements,” “distortions” and “misrepresentations” about Herbalife and vowing to use “every means available to protect our reputation.”

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“In recent weeks, there’s been a tremendous amount of misinformation about Herbalife,” Johnson said. “This misinformation has found its way into the marketplace. Therefore we are sitting with you to correct some of this today.”

Quiz: How well do you remember 2012?

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In addition to outside experts brought in to bolster Herbalife’s claims, company executives went through Pershing’s presentation last month, disputing individual slides.

To the complaint that Herbalife is not focused on its products, Chief Operating Officer Rich Goudis showed figures indicating that the company spends millions on research and development.

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To a Pershing slide that accused Herbalife of having a small distribution network, the company countered with a map of more than 300 company-run distribution points and showing its expansion in Indonesia and South Korea.

To a Pershing slide showing Herbalife products as more expensive than competitors’ per 200-calorie servings, the company offered its own slide that compared the prices of the products per unit and showed costs in line with those of its competitors.

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“Pershing intentionally used a misleading metric,” Goudis said. “They did this to knowingly create a false impression.”

They paraded out experts.

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Kim Rory, representing Lieberman Research Worldwide, said distributors she surveyed had joined Herbalife because they wanted to get a discount on the products for personal use. Few signed up because they thought they’d make a large amount of money, and about two-thirds would recommend being a distributor to friends, she said.

Anne Coughlan, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, defended Herbalife’s marketing structure and disputed the allegation that it is a pyramid scheme.

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“I didn’t even see a scintilla of evidence that would suggest to me any hint that this company is running anything but a legitimate multi-level marketing program,” she said.

Perhaps the most personal attacks came from Herbalife President Des Walsh, who said he was “highly offended” by Ackman’s portrayal of Herbalife’s nutrition clubs and defended the company for bringing nutritional products to poor neighborhoods.

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After showing a video featuring happy distributors in crowded nutrition clubs, Walsh suggested that Ackman was out of touch with real America.

“This doesn’t look like a country club in Westchester, Connecticut, but let me tell you, inside this club is real America,” he said. (Earlier in the presentation, Walsh explained that people come to the club for a hug, adding, “the world needs more hugs.”)

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His comments echo a note sent out last week by D.A. Davidson analyst Ramey, who has a “buy” rating on Herbalife.

“Perhaps where Mr. Ackman lives he never sees a car with the ‘Lose weight, ask me how’ message across the rear window,” he wrote. “I can tell Mr. Ackman that in my hometown, which is not quite Chappaqua, Herbalife is an iconic and widely recognized brand.”

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Ackman responded quickly Thursday, saying that Herbalife’s presentation “distorted, mischaracterized and outright ignored large portions of our presentation,” and that he had been contacted by people who provided more information into Herbalife’s business practices, which he will soon reveal.

The unusual fight on Wall Street ramped up in December, when Ackman laid out his case against Herbalife in a three-hour, 200-plus slide presentation. He questioned whether the company was focused on recruiting new distributors, who pay to join the company, instead of on selling products. His announcement sent the company’s stock down 36% and turned heads when analysts heard he’d sold short 20 million Herbalife shares.

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Ackman’s biggest beef with Herbalife focused on its so-called multi-level marketing model, which he said led to only those at the top of the company making money. More than 90% of distributors break even or lose money, he said. Ackman even drew UCLA into the controversy, saying Herbalife mentioned a lab at the university multiple times during each investor presentation to lend itself legitimacy.

Herbalife shares recovered some of their losses in the weeks after Ackman’s presentation as some investors expressed confidence in the company. Hedge fund Third Point said it was taking an 8.2% stake in Herbalife, betting that the company would survive Ackman’s assault.

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Analysts at Thursday’s meeting seemed supportive of Herbalife, with some expressing their belief in the company during a question-and-answer period after the presentation. One analyst urged the company to fight back against Pershing Square’s method of “slandering” the company.

“It was a good, thorough presentation that certainly accomplished the job of defending the legitimacy of their business model,” Ramey said.

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Still, not all investors were convinced by the presentation. Herbalife’s stock closed down 71 cents, or 1.8%, at $39.24. That may be because on Wednesday the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into Herbalife, according to published reports.

alana.semuels@latimes.com


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