Carl Icahn is a very funny guy. Seriously.
Just ask anyone who was present at the Tomorrow’s Children’s Fund Investment Conference in the late afternoon on Wednesday, May 9, where the legendary arbitrageur and raider slayed the crowd in the Grand Hyatt ballroom. A few hundred suits had gathered there to pick up stock tips from a marquee lineup of speakers that included, in addition to Mr. Icahn, John Meriwether, James Cramer and Henry Blodget–all of whom had some funny things to say (notwithstanding Mr. Cramer’s completely sincere announcement that he planned to invest more of his own money in TheStreet.com).
But it was Mr. Icahn who spoke last, and best, cutting through all of the chirpy advice and desperate evocations of a coming rebound with anecdotes of corporate America’s and Wall Street’s stupidity. He has been plying that schtick for years, true–but never, it seemed, with such hilarity and improvisational brio. He was at once brash and self-effacing, studied and spontaneous–like a seasoned stand-up comic.
He arrived late, with cameramen from CNNfn on his tail, and slowly made his way to the stage, where he just began talking, off the cuff, without so much as a cue card.
“I’m not gonna tell you this stock is great, that one’s great,” he said, after which a few people hastily left the room. “I’m gonna talk a little bit about the economy, and about myself.”
He spent about a minute on the economy and then got to himself–which is what everybody wanted to hear about, anyway.
He told the story of his early years in the market: He’d made a pile playing poker in college, invested it, did well for a while until he became a broker, then lost his shirt buying stocks that he chose by eavesdropping on the older brokers–stocks they were pushing but wouldn’t themselves touch, it turned out, with a 10-foot pole.
Then the billionaire who likes to refer to himself as a “shareholder activist” went off on bankers: “I think the investment bankers are to blame [for the economy],” he said and, after a few seconds of awkward chuckles–many of these people were investment bankers, after all–added: “I don’t have to be nice to them anymore; they don’t raise money for me, even when I want them to.” The place rocked with surprised laughter.
Before long, the man who took on TWA and Texaco was on one of his favorite subjects, management: “The corporate manager is the guy who used to be president of the fraternity. He’s a good guy, you like having a drink with him, but …. ”
The chief executive, he declared, is always afraid for his job, so “he’s gonna make sure the No. 2 guy is dumber than him. And he makes sure the guy under him is dumber. Eventually, you’re gonna end up with a bunch of morons.” The room exploded. “In fact, we’re not too far from that right now.”
He dug into boards: “The first thing you do when you go to a board meeting–I’ve been on a couple of boards, but they don’t invite me to too many anymore–the first thing you do is get an envelope with your check for 5,000 bucks …. Then you look at charts that nobody understands. The C.E.O. looks at them; he doesn’t understand them. The C.F.O. looks; he doesn’t understand them …. Then you get some more checks, and everybody says, ‘Isn’t this great?'”
After getting solid laughs for a good 20 minutes, Mr. Icahn concluded the set by telling everybody why he shorted Priceline from the get-go–a guy he knows who owns supermarkets told him that he bought his groceries from the ailing online bidding company because Priceline was dumb enough to subsidize the difference between his prices and theirs–and why he’s still shorting Conseco: They drag homeless guys off the street and offer them secondary mortgages.
Mr. Icahn absolutely killed.
He was so good, in fact, that The Observer called a number of stand-up comedy clubs to see if they’d be interested in booking him. But the responses were mixed.
“We might give him like five or six minutes,” said Peter Shapiro, a booker for Gotham Comedy Club. “Let me talk to my partner about it. Call me on Tuesday.” (Mr. Shapiro admitted, though, that he’s been wary of such spectacle acts ever since he booked Abe Hirschfeld, who bombed.)
“Does he want to do that?” asked Lucien, a booker for Comic Strip Live. “We put on lots of strange people, but he would have to prepare something that would be appropriate.”
Lucien worried that Mr. Icahn’s stories about his early career might not be right for his club’s crowd. “We tend to have the kinds of guys in the audience who would be laborers for TWA, but not that many top-line executives …. You have to try to imagine how his comments would play to the stewardesses, or to the guys who clean the planes.”
Probably the least interested was Jerry, the general manager of Stand-Up New York. “We do have amateur shows,” he said.
Mr. Icahn did not return The Observer ‘s calls–nor, as far as we know, did he follow up on any of the comedy clubs’ offers.
This Will Really Suck Them In!
The rantings and musings of Jim Cramer are no longer gratis at TheStreet.com. No, now that he has hung up his trader’s spikes, those who want the full force of Mr. Cramer’s inside chatter have to become subscribers to RealMoney.com–the paid subscription component of TheStreet.com–for a $199.95 annual fee.
While RealMoney.com does boast a subscriber list of 75,000, it is still something of a slog to get readers to pay up. Yet the need couldn’t be more pressing: TheStreet’s stock trades at $1.90, and big investors like Paul Allen may be selling down their stakes.
Like all other Web-based news providers, the company needs cash. Quick. So what to do?
“Become a RealMoney member and get a discount on Jim Cramer’s ‘The Great CEOs Series’ videos!” screams one e-mail pitch ($79.99, a $20 saving for Real Money subscribers!). “Go to the Las Vegas Money Show, May 14 to May 17, and hear Jim Cramer and others for FREE!” shouts another. “Enter a drawing for a private lunch with editor in chief Dave Kansas!”
Wait a minute. Lunch with Dave Kansas? Yup, just fill out a RealMoney readership-profile survey and presto!–into the hat goes your name. And get this: If you win, Mr. Kansas will fly out to you, wherever you might be, for the special repast.
A Jim Cramer video for $80 we might understand. Ditto for the Las Vegas Money Show. But lunch with Dave Kansas? No disrespect to the 34-year-old Mr. Kansas, a well-regarded former Wall Street Journal reporter who’s been running the editorial show at TheStreet since its inception, but as a lunch partner–well, he’s not quite Graydon Carter, or The Journal ‘s Paul Steiger, for that matter.
The taciturn Minnesota native keeps a decidedly lower profile than the rambunctious Mr. Cramer, not to mention other media types around town. Nevertheless, TheStreet.com’s readers seem more than happy to have a bite with him.
“Ouch. I can see you are going to have fun with this,” Mr. Kansas said, laughing, when asked about his desirability as a lunchtime companion. “But our readership is curious about the inner workings of the company,” he continued. “Are they thrilled? Well, I think they find it interesting. My Q rating with the readers is higher than that outside the readership base.”
Mr. Kansas, indeed, does what he can to keep up his profile with TheStreet.com’s readers. He writes a letter to readers once a week, and he has also co-written a how-to book with Mr. Cramer about investing in the Internet era that’s been well-received. So far, he’s done a small number of lunches–meeting recently, for example, with a lucky options trader from Chicago.
“Would our readers rather have a chance to eat lunch with Jim Cramer? Sure, and we have done that,” Mr. Kansas said. “It’s pretty standard marketing fare.”
–Landon Thomas Jr.
If You Thought That Was Desperate Marketing …
It’s tough to relaunch a 1961 seafoam-green curvilinear midtown hotel in the midst of an economic wobble, in a city whose tourism-happy Mayor is decidedly distracted, where crime just might be in again and where the Hudson’s Ian Shrager throws foie gras in his mac ‘n’ cheese. Just ask Michael Lyman, the director of sales and marketing for the Metropolitan Hotel, formerly the Loews New York, a hotel designed in 1961 by Florida architect Morris Lapidus.
Long an eyesore on 51st Street and Lexington Avenue, the Metropolitan is now revamping with hipper rooms (“not scary hip,” Mr. Lyman emphasized) and a bevy of promotional packages and gimmicks which say a lot about the fevered brains of Manhattan’s hoteliers struggling to get and keep their beds filled.
The Metropolitan has decided that puns are fun in its updated Tech Den, its first-floor Internet café, which will serve “Tech Bytes” like “Virtual Veggies” with “Digital Dip” and a “You’ve Got Cheese Burger.” The hotel’s restaurant, the Lexington Avenue Grill, has instituted an “I Will Survive” room-service menu for late-night partiers, which features “The Morning After Anything Scrambled” and “‘In Case Yours No Longer Works’ Liver.” All items are served with a side of aspirin.
Then there are the recent promotions, all of which have been dreamed up by Mr. Lyman in conjunction with Quinn & Company public relations. The Name Change deal, which celebrated the hotel’s changeover, offered a free weekend night to anyone who legally changed his or her name (marriage and divorce don’t count). According to Mr. Lyman, this deal was “too successful,” resulting in 100 freshly monikered visitors from around the country sleeping for free.
The Metropolitan next launched, on Valentine’s Day, an “Ultimate Proposal Package.” For $13,000, a nervous groom-to-be can get a deluxe room for one night, two dozen roses, some strawberries and a bottle of Dom, candles, music, lingerie, silk sheets, a (gulp!) camera, a $30 phone voucher to spread the news and a $10,000 voucher for a diamond engagement ring “of the groom’s choice.” If the bride says no, the $10,000 gets exchanged for an “all-out tropical getaway to help the rejected recover.” (The press mentions neither hookers nor booze.) So far, no one has signed up for the proposal package.
Mr. Lyman has higher hopes for the distressing “Pink-Slip Pick-Me-Up.” This deal, launched in March, is designed “for those feeling the economic slow-down first hand.” Prospective customers must show proof that they got canned sometime after Nov. 1. Then they get a special room rate (remember, if you changed your name, your room was free) , half off the hotel’s signature Metropolitan cocktail, the “Sexy Lexy,” and a list of headhunters.
Isn’t there a fear of crowding out giddy, almost-engaged couples with drunken, unemployed dot-commers anxious for a high floor with big windows to throw themselves out? Mr. Lyman laughed and said, “Well, after the first drink, they have to pay.” He admitted that this program, too, has not had any takers.
There’s no word yet on the success of the “Privileged Paws” frequent-stay program for pets. Depending on how long your Schnauzer plans to bunk in the penthouse, this deal may include a free meal from the “Pet Room Service Menu,” a complimentary bowl of fluoride-enriched Dog
In the May 7 issue, an article in The Observer (“News Alert! 1,000 Brokers Keep Their Jobs”) credited Wall Street Journal reporter Charles Gasparino with breaking the news that Morgan Stanley chief executive Phil Purcell sent an e-mail to clients apologizing for a speech made by former President Bill Clinton at a firm conference. While Mr. Gasparino did break the news that Morgan Stanley’s clients were displeased with the firm for inviting the former President to speak on Feb. 5, Philip Shenon of The New York Times published an article on Feb. 11 that first reported Mr. Purcell’s actual apology to Morgan Stanley clients.