The thorn in Target's corporate side is gone. William Ackman, who led a bruising proxy battle against Target Corp. management two years ago and had other strategic disputes with the company, has liquidated his stock position in the Minneapolis-based retailer, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents filed this week.
Ackman, through his Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund, sold 7.4 million shares of Target stock in the first quarter of the year, closing his position.
At one time, Ackman, who invested $2 billion in Target in 2007, was Target's third-largest shareholder.
During his four years of stock ownership, Ackman achieved the role of dissident shareholder, saying he didn't want Target to become known as "a once-great company."
He apologized to his investors in 2009 when their Target investment lost 90 percent of its value.
Target declined to comment on Ackman's departure as a shareholder. A staff member in Ackman's Pershing Square office said the SEC filing speaks for itself.
Experts in corporate governance and management said Target executives are probably breathing a collective sigh of relief.
"One of the complaints directed at Ackman was that at a very difficult time for the company [in a recession], he was distracting management from doing what they should be doing," said Ian Maitland, a professor of management at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
Ackman lost an expensive proxy battle against Target in 2009 to add himself and four others to the company's board of directors. Altogether, Ackman and Target spent an estimated $21.1 million in a battle that became personal.
"It was self-defeating when management efforts were diverted to a proxy battle when the company had Wal-Mart in its gun sights," Maitland said.
At the time, Target called Ackman's efforts "desperate" and paraphrased an ancient Chinese general that "tactics without strategy, however clever, are merely the noise before defeat." Ackman quoted John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in explaining his belief in shareholder choices and open voting.
Ackman also spent years trying to get Target to unlock assets he hoped would increase shareholder value. The retailer implemented some of them, including selling half of its credit card receivables. Ackman pushed for a $15 billion stock-buyback program; the retailer later announced a $10 billion one but suspended it to conserve cash in 2008. Target resumed it last year after the recession ended.
The REIT fight
Ackman's most high-profile initiative, which led to his board bid, was one the retailer refused to do: selling the land underneath its stores and putting it into a real estate investment trust. The retailer would then lease the property back. He had estimated as much as 20 percent of that REIT could be spun off in an initial public offering that would raise more than $5 billion. Ackman held news conferences on his proposal and tried to rally other big shareholders, but Target rejected the plan.
"We had mixed views of that proposal. We didn't have a lot of comfort with it," said analyst Matt Arnold of Edward Jones & Co. "But we agreed about selling the credit card business. By being patient, Target played things smartly and sold when the business was better."
Arnold said Ackman could come back on Target's radar in the future.
"He's an active investor and consumer. Maybe he'll find an interest in the stock again," said Arnold.
New York-based Ackman has positions in Bloomington-based Ceridian, Wendy's International and Borders Group. Last fall he announced he had amassed a 16.5 percent stake in J.C. Penney. He joined the department store chain's board in January.
Staff writers Karen Lundegaard and Wendy Lee contributed to this report. David Phelps • 612-673-7269