In yet another chapter in what has become a real-life, Wall Street-D.C. soap opera, the nutritional supplements company Herbalife announced today that it has hired Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, Alan Hoffman.
Hoffman, who left Biden’s side in 2012 to join Pepsi Co., will start in August as Herbalife’s new executive vice president in charge of everything from “public policy” to “government affairs”—a title that translates, in layman’s terms, to the person who will oversee the company's vast lobbying effort in Washington, DC.
It’s a big job. Herbalife is reportedly under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and at least two state attorney generals over allegations that the company’s business model is a predatory pyramid scheme.
Herbalife’s arch nemesis, the billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, gave a three-hour presentation on Tuesday this week outlining his case against the company, which he describes as a “criminal operation” that fleeces poor people by promising, but not delivering, lucrative rewards for selling Herbalife’s nutritional supplements.
But Herbalife’s all-star team of backers, which includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the activist investor Carl Icahn, and soccer celeb David Beckham, have dismissed Ackman’s allegations out of hand as “completely false and fabricated.”
Ackman has led a lonely crusade against the company for the last 18 months, spending $50 million of his investors’ money hiring a battalion of investigators to prove that the company is misleading distributors, misrepresenting sales figures and selling its products at inflated prices. Ackman became tearful Tuesday describing the company's practices, which he compared to those used by the Mafia, the Nazis, and Enron.
Ackman’s hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management LP, has also bet against Herbalife in the market and stands to gain $1 billion if the company’s stock collapses.
Herbalife’s stock has soared and plummeted, roller coaster-like, since December 2012, when Ackman first vowed to take the company down. Since January 2013, Herbalife has thrown itself into the battle, dumping roughly $2 million on official lobbying efforts in Washington, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That kind of spending marks a major increase for the company, which shelled out about the same amount on lobbying over the course of a decade between 1998 and 2008.
This week, the company suggested that it may sue Ackman for defamation — something public companies seldom do, in part because the legal barriers are very high and in part because such an action could give Ackman the power to demand access to some of Herbalife’s non-public records. (Ackman responded Tuesday to a question about the possible lawsuit: “Bring it on.")
Hoffman, who has worked for all three branches of government, has close ties with officials within the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, Congress, and the Obama administration. “I look forward to ensuring that the public more clearly understands the critical role the company plays in advancing good nutrition,” Hoffman said in a statement today. “I also look forward to promoting the economic opportunities that this global nutrition company provides for hard-working people in communities everywhere.”
During Ackman’s presentation this week, which he promised would be a “death blow” for the company, Herbalife’s stock actually rose, ending the trading day 25% higher than where it had started. Ackman alleged that the company had bought its own stock to make its price rise.
Herbalife’s retail strategy depends on hiring salespeople who do not draw an independent income, but instead share in revenues generated by the salespeople they recruit, and those of their recruits’ recruits. Herbalife does not dispute that model.
But Ackman alleges that many of Herbalife’s “customers” are purchasing the company’s products in an effort to qualify to open a branded “nutrition club,” which the company bills as a lucrative business opportunity. Ackman says his investigators' analysis of a sample of Herbalife's “nutrition clubs” lost an average of at least $12,000 a year, and that fewer than 2% of its salespeople made more than $5,000 last year. Herbalife says those numbers misrepresent its model, where many customers sign up as “salespeople” to get discounts on the products for themselves, their friends and family.
“I’m an extremely, extremely persistent person. Extremely,” Ackman said Tuesday. “And when I believe I am right, and it is important, I will go to the end of the earth." Whether he's right or wrong, he's up against a formidable team in Washington, DC.