When I heard that Carl Icahn would be the commencement speaker for Drexel University's business school on Saturday, my first thought was, "What a coup."
After all, this billionaire financier is the Mike Wallace of activist investors. Few corporate CEOs want to hear from their executive assistants, "Sir, Carl Icahn is on line 2."
I use the neutral phrase "activist investor" because "corporate raider" is so '80s. But Icahn does nothing to dispel his buccaneering image. You need only read his correspondence with Yahoo Inc.'s board to confirm that.
A major Yahoo shareholder, Icahn single-handedly kept the pressure on the online search firm after Microsoft Corp. dropped its hostile bid in early May. He's made it plain that Yahoo should fire CEO Jerry Yang and merge with Microsoft.
If there were a fantasy league for the M&A business, you'd want Icahn on your team.
I really wanted to know what Icahn plans to tell the grads. But Drexel said it didn’t know and Icahn didn't return my call. (Given that Yahoo yesterday declared all talks with Microsoft dead, Icahn probably had more pressing things on his mind.)
At least one person I talked with thinks that the 375 undergrads and 148 MBA students at Drexel's LeBow College of Business are in for a rare treat.
That would be Mark Stevens, who wrote an unauthorized biography called "King Icahn" in the early '90s. Now running a consulting firm called MSCO in Rye Brook, N.Y., Stevens called Icahn "the smartest guy I ever met."
At first glance, he’s an unusual choice to speak to college grads because he’s no mentor, according to Stevens.
"This is not the kind of guy who wakes up in the morning and says, 'God, what can I do to help the next generation?'" Stevens said.
But other than Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett, there’s no businessperson Stevens would rather hear speak. The reason? Icahn built a fortune, estimated at $14 billion, wheeling and dealing his way.
His story is about what can happen "if you can learn to write your own playbook, rather than read the books your professors" assigned, Stevens said.
Icahn, 72, didn't go to business school. He majored in philosophy at Princeton. He's a chess player who's always 10 moves ahead of his opponent, Stevens said.
And he obviously relishes playing multiple opponents at the same time.
Just consider what he's been up to this week alone. He lambasted Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock in a letter. ("Most of your so-called ‘plans’ over the last few years have been failures.") He continues to wage a proxy fight for control of Biogen Idec Inc. Meanwhile, his American Railcar Industries backed off pursuing talks with a rival maker of rolling stock.
Other b-schools had notable speakers this spring: Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. at Wharton, Gen. Anthony Zinni at Villanova, American Refining Group CEO Harry Halloran Jr. at Temple, and Marsh & McLennan CEO Brian Duperreault at Saint Joseph's.
Drexel, just down the street from Wharton, could trump them all if the Wizard of White Plains speaks like he writes letters to corporate chieftains.
LeBow College dean George Tsetsekos said Drexel sought Icahn. "A stream of research in corporate finance has praised the activities of Mr. Icahn on matters related to the market for corporate control," he said. "Our business graduates will gain important insight by hearing him speak."