At 77 years old, Carl Icahn is at the most active and successful point of his long-storied career on Wall Street. And despite his very public battle with Michael Dell, the barbarian has traded in his activist axe for a Warren Buffett-like investment style and now sports a comfortable beard.
Over the last four years, Icahn has taken an ownership stake in 22 companies, more than any four-year period for him since at least 1994, according www.13DMonitor.com. Netflix is up more than 500 percent since his stake became public in October.
So what's driving Wall Street's already richest man to keep going? Perhaps by staying at it for this long, he's proving to his critics that he is—in fact—not in it just for the money. The septuagenarian is sending a message that he was, and always will be, about the corporate governance ideal he holds so dear.
"I think he's looking at these companies with all their huge cash balances and zero interest rates and saying to lazy executives, 'Get off your ass and do something,'" said Pete Najarian, co-founder of TradeMonster.com. "These companies are not broken. They are just sitting on their hands."
(Read more: Dell vote will have investors on edge)
Of course, it helps that nowadays, Icahn is managing just his own money, after returning all outside capital in 2011 following some big financial crisis losses. Forbes estimates his worth at more than $20 billion. That's a lot of dry powder for such an active mind that sometimes decides to take a billion dollar position in a company after simply reading an article in the paper.
"It's because of all his money," said Ken Squire, who's racked up a good track record for himself by following Icahn and others for his 13D Activist Fund. "He's feeling the freedom and that allows him to be more creative."
By Squire's math, following Icahn's buys and sells over the last 20 years would have netted you a 39 percent annualized return, compared with just an 8.6 percent return for the S&P 500. And those returns have accelerated as of late.
"Carl gets a lot of attention for his confrontational activism and removing directors and CEOs, but some of his best investments are companies where he believes in management and the CEO and may or not take a board seat to support them," said 13D's Squire.
As mentioned above, Netflix is the biggest winner of all, and Icahn hasn't shown any indication of wanting a seat on the board. (Of course, his 10 percent stake would give him a shot at getting one if the streaming video company were to stumble).
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, told Forbes in March, "I was worried about him when we didn't know him, but I now must say that I enjoy his company."
Icahn Enterprises (IEP), the publicly-traded vehicle for his hedge fund, is coming off one of its best quarters ever, with hedge fund assets up 10 percent.
"We believe the current environment sets up well for IEP's activist strategy, given large corporate cash balances and favorable financing markets," wrote Jefferies analyst Daniel Fannon in a May report. He rates the stock a "buy."