Clues to What Makes Bill Ackman Tick Unveiled in His Family Tree

A scene from a family movie shows Bill Ackman as a boy tethered to his carriage. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

A scene from a family movie shows Bill Ackman as a boy tethered to his carriage. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg
  • Great grandfather Abraham was a shepherd, grandad a songwriter
  • Dad says Bill gets activism from mom: 'Activism is genetic'

Bill Ackman didn’t let an investor’s call he had to prepare for get in the way of a family celebration.

The night before a scheduled Friday morning call about Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., Ackman, chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management, Valeant’s third-largest shareholder as of June 30, joined his mom, wife and 9-year-old daughter for a tribute to his dad at the Center for Jewish History.

Three generations of Ackmans
Three generations of Ackmans
Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Unlike most benefits, with their brief, saccharine speeches that still seem too long, this one got really personal in an almost hour-long, one-on-one exchange between Ackman and his dad, Larry, founder of Ackman-Ziff Real Estate Group.

Bill kicked things off by swiveling his father’s chair to face a screen, and rolling about six minutes of family movies that he narrated. There was Bill’s grandfather Herman in a bathing suit on his honeymoon in Havana; Larry at a party for his Harvard Business School graduation; and Bill standing up in his baby carriage on a family outing in Central Park.

‘Under Control’

"I have a device on me that keeps me in the stroller," Bill said.

"That was the last time you were under control," his father said.

"I tried to get out but they tied me down," Bill said. “I can’t believe this is legal.”

A scene from a family movie shows Bill Ackman as a boy tethered to his carriage. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

A scene from a family movie shows Bill Ackman as a boy tethered to his carriage. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Larry also told a story about how Bill’s mom, Ronnie, collected thousands of signatures and lobbied politicians in an effort to extend Metro-North Railroad service to their hometown of Chappaqua, New York: "Activism is genetic," Larry quipped, explaining that Bill gets it from his mom.

The event raised more than $2 million for the Center, where the Ackman family and the family of Larry Ackman’s business partner, Simon Ziff, have the genealogy institute named after them. Larry said the institute helped the Ackmans assemble an extensive family tree. Prior to working with their researchers, he’d only known details back to his grandfather.

Ukrainian Shepherd

Some fun facts that emerged:

* "The whole family was wiped" when the Bank of United States collapsed in 1930, an event that brought on the Great Depression, Larry said. Fortunately, "Uncle Bert had money under the mattress, he was able to take care of the family during those hard times."

* Bill’s great-grandfather Abraham started out as a shepherd in Ukraine. "He tended sheep and it makes sense," Larry said. "Very fine quality wool, he ended up being a coat manufacturer." The more detailed version: Drafted into the tsarist army, he rode over the border to Austria, apprenticed himself for two years to learn to sew, and saved enough money to buy a boat ticket to New York, where he landed at Castle Garden in 1887. He settled in Newark and worked as a tailor before opening his factory on Staten Island.

* Bill’s grandfather Herman initially tried to make a career as a songwriter, peddling his tunes on Tin Pan Alley, said Larry. He’d get $100 a song, and $150 for a great song, and he sold maybe 10 or 15 songs in about five years until he "could see this is no way to make a living," and went into his uncle’s real estate services business based on 149th Street in the Bronx. His biggest hit? "Put your arms where they belong,” sold 750,000 records.

Dating Help

* According to Bill, Larry helped set him up with the woman he married: "Women in business school had issues with dating men in business school," Bill said. "Or maybe they just had issues with me." Things improved the day he got a fax from dad, "one of those curly things," that was a forward of a fax from one of his dad’s clients, containing the phone number of a graduate design student at Harvard. When Larry called later, Bill had already set up a date with Karen. A couple of years later, Bill’s dad told him if he didn’t propose soon, he’d find a nice guy who would. "Dad’s a good negotiator," Bill said.

The Center for Jewish History has preserved and made accessible more than 100 million letters, photographs and other documents owned by the five institutions that make their home there.

Scholars attending the “Titans of Industry” benefit shared their finds, including historian Devin Naar of the University of Washington, who located his grandfather’s name written in beautiful purple ink in a registry of names of survivors of a 1917 fire in Salonica, Greece. Naar will soon publish a book on the Jews of Salonica, once dubbed the Jerusalem of the Balkans.

Columbia University professor Rebecca Kobrin combed over Yiddish newspapers to chronicle the tribulations faced by Jewish immigrants as a result of bank failures -- the most famous one being the failure of the Bank of United States, in which the Ackman family lost their hard-earned dollars.

These days the Ackmans are on fairly solid financial ground. After retiring, Larry moved to Pershing Square to invest in real estate. "It’s become a fairly major exercise and it’s become remarkably successful," Bill said.

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