Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Point taken: Shaken, not stirred

Let’s admit it, there is something both naughty and delicious about watching billionaire investors fight over the fate of companies. These are people who think they are skilled in the art of war, and they invariably have the ego and resources to execute their battle plan. None of this  “leading from behind” claptrap. Their armored vehicles don’t have a reverse gear.

For the past few years, I’ve gotten a charge in the epic feud between Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman over the value of Herbalife Ltd., which is based in California but owns an enormous manufacturing operation that employs more than 400 people near Winston-Salem. The building was where Dell, engorged with local and state incentives, made PCs until — of course — it didn’t, but that’s a story for another day. In a nutshell, Ackman had bet against Herbalife, first asserting it was a pyramid scheme, and then doing everything in his power to get the government to agree and trigger a plunge in the stock. Icahn had taken the opposing view, that Herbalife was simply a multilevel marketing operation — maybe not for everybody, but definitely not illegal.

Icahn won. In July, Herbalife agreed to pay $200 million to settle a long-running investigation by the Federal Trade Commission over its practices. The government’s initial complaint was harsh in its descriptions of Herbalife’s marketing and recruitment tactics. But in the end, the lawyers hashed it all out. Bygones. Herbalife didn’t admit fault but just said settling was the prudent course of action. Again, bygones. As a reward for its gracious surrender, it avoids having to wear the scarlet P (as in Pyramid), so life goes on. For his part, Icahn got to increase his holdings from 25% to just under 35%, a stake now worth $2.2 billion. Ackman, who has lost at least $500 million on the investment according to Fortune, has said he still believes Herbalife will crash and burn. Don’t count on it. One reason: The vast majority of Herbalife’s business takes place outside the U.S. and the FTC’s oversight.

So, the other day, on an analysts’ call reviewing its quarterly results, company executives were practically giddy at their long-term prospects.

Herbalife’s direct-selling model isn’t going anywhere, said Michael Johnson, the company’s super-charged, somewhat evangelistic CEO. “It is the ability to give a voice to our products and through a conversation with a customer about nutrition that makes us the ultimate last mile in the distribution chain.”

Multilevel marketing has been around for a long time. Think Amway, Shaklee, Mary Kay and all those pink Cadillacs. These outfits aren’t for everybody. There’s too much messianic zeal in these organizations. That approach made sense, as they had typically operated on the fringes of the economy, a bit apart from the traditional work going on in auto plants and stores, office buildings and the medical-industrial complex.

Now, we’ve entered a different phase. Work in general is being uncoupled from a fixed place and fixed employer. It’s often called the “gig economy,” a place of so-called empowerment, where workers set their own rules and watch the money flow into their PayPal account while they sip an artisanal latte. When Herbalife announced its settlement, the company also attempted to wrap itself in that flag of freedom.

It said: “The American economy is full of people searching for supplemental income, and those who choose to sell Herbalife products are no different. Companies like Uber, Airbnb and Etsy all offer industrious people the opportunity to generate supplemental income, with low barriers to entry and the flexibility to work on their
own terms.”

This is important. It represents a reframing of the Herbalife pitch for its enormous force of U.S.-based independent sellers. In the past, Herbalife’s appeal was based on getting rich. The settlement forbids that approach. So, now, I guess it’s supposed to be more like recruiting Uber drivers, which is a nice way to earn some extra bucks but not enough to retire on or even quit your day job.

And there’s the rub. While there are exceptions, the gig economy isn’t making a lot of people very rich. The money flows to the top, to the corporations and executives that control the technology that enables the gigs to get booked and paid. And that is how capitalism works: On the factory floor, and door-to-door.

Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

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