By  on October 11, 2010

If you Google the term “activist investor,” you’re likely to see a photo of Bill Ackman, the floppy-haired, 44-year-old hedge fund whiz.

The boyish-looking, soft-spoken Ackman has been in and out of the spotlight over the past two decades, and prior to news of his most recent investment in J.C. Penney Co. Inc., was perhaps best known for his failed attempt to redirect Target Corp.’s board and company structure.

A native of Chappaqua, N.Y., Ackman is the scion of the family behind commercial real estate firm Ackman-Ziff. He began his career at Gotham Partners, a hedge fund that he co-founded in 1992 after graduating from Harvard Business School. Several smart investments later, including one in Rockefeller Center Properties, and the fund reportedly amassed $500 million in assets by 1998.

Around this time, the twentysomething prodigy garnered much attention when he teamed up with an insurance and real estate company to make an unsuccessful bid for Rockefeller Center.

Ackman’s precipitous rise stalled in 2003 when then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer launched an investigation into Gotham’s trading practices. No charges were ever filed, and Ackman started a new fund, Pershing Square Management.

As chairman and chief executive officer of Pershing, Ackman has acquired positions in fast-food chain Wendy’s International Inc., McDonald’s Corporation, General Growth Properties Inc., Borders Group and Ceridian Corp.

Last year, Ackman waged a proxy fight for five seats on Target’s board but was rebuffed. He subsequently lowered his stake in the discount chain.

Most recently, Pershing gobbled up a 16 percent stake in Penney’s and a 10.9 percent interest in Fortune Brands Inc.

On Friday, just as word of those investments began to circulate, Ackman was named chairman of Howard Hughes Corp., the planned-communities business being spun off from GGP as it looks to emerge from bankruptcy with Ackman’s bankrolling help. Pershing Square will own 9.5 percent of the spin-off.

In his spare time, Ackman and his wife, Karen Herskovitz, a landscape architect whom he married in 1994, run their own charity, called the Pershing Square Foundation. The foundation, which reportedly has $55 million in assets, has aided farmers in Africa, underprivileged high school students in New York and funded a group that exposes human rights violations, among others.

Ackman has also donated money to the Center for Jewish History in New York and helped build a research wing for genealogical studies called the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute.

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