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Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Ackman talks Herbalife, P&G, Target, Air Products

Bill Ackman
Peter Foley | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Herbalife is now a "levered pyramid scheme" because of new financing; Target has "lost some of its magic;" Procter & Gamble is a "phenomenal business with an enormous opportunity;" and Air Products and Chemicals will "make a lot of money."

Those are some of the views expressed Wednesday by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman at a charity event in New York City.

The founder of $12 billion Pershing Square Capital Management gave answers to a wide-ranging set of questions from members of the audience at The Harbor Investment Conference, which also featured Jonathan Gray of Blackstone Group, Philip Hilal of Kingdon Capital Management, Stephen Errico of Locust Wood Capital Advisers and others.

On Herbalife, Ackman weighed in on the multilevel marketing company's recent round of financing, which included a stock buyback and debt offering. He dismissed the move as just an addition to Herbalife's balance sheet.

"The company is now a levered pyramid scheme," Ackman said to laughs. "We like that."

(Read more: Ackman's Pershing Square posts 3.8% gain in Jan)

The latest Herbalife twist
The latest Herbalife twist

Herbalife has aggressively fought Ackman's characterization of the company.

Ackman famously made a $1 billion short bet in December 2012. He said his firm has yet to make money on the wager but that its short position is notionally larger today than ever before because of options on the stock.

Herbalife traded at about $42 just before Ackman's position was disclosed. It's now at around $65, but down 16.6 percent this year. A spokesman for the firm declined to comment.

(Read more: Blackstone real estate head: No bubble)

On Target, Ackman warned that the company had lost the buzz that once surrounded it and is likely to lose additional sales to online retailers like Amazon.

"It's a well-run retailer but it has lost some of its magic," Ackman said. "It seems to have lost some of its brand appeal. It's become more of a commodity retailer. It's selling food. It seems more like a slightly higher-end Wal-Mart. That's a bit of a risky place to be in the world."

Ackman also said the recent data breach of customer information at Target had done damage.

"Security of your data is something people feel strongly about, and they really have hurt their reputation and will have to do some things to win their customers back," he said.

Ackman does not appear to have a position in Target. He previously invested in the stock, but sold out in 2011 after losing a proxy fight with the company in 2009.

On Procter & Gamble, Ackman said the company had huge potential.

"There's an enormous, enormous opportunity there," Ackman said of rehired chief executive A.G. Lafley's potential to improve the business and cut costs.

"It's one of the great businesses of the world," he added, noting that brands like Crest, Tide and Gillette have "robust little minimonopolies" in their respective product sectors.

Pershing Square is a P&G shareholder, but recently cut its stake.

What P&G's performance could mean for Bill Ackman
What P&G's performance could mean for Bill Ackman

Ackman also discussed Air Products, a large Pershing Square position representing 9.7 percent of the company.

He said the company, which makes various gas and chemical products that serve steel and other industries, was a stable, predictable business that would benefit as the world continues to industrialize.

"This is a great emerging market play," Ackman said.

He said Air Products should be a $200 or more stock in the next three years. Shares now trade around $111. Air Produts is in the process of selecting a new chief executive after the old CEO, John McGlade, stepped down in September under pressure from Pershing Square.

"The issue is it has not performed as well as the best-run peer," Ackman said in reference to Praxair. "If they can close the gap, if they can be a little more disciplined about allocating capital, they can make a lot of money."

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While the conference was effectively a love fest for Ackman, a small band of union protesters were positioned on the sidewalk near the entrance as attendees filed in.

Members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 15 held signs alleging that construction workers on the Las Vegas site of a Howard Hughes Corp. development--which Pershing owns a big chunk of--were being underpaid.

"Bill Ackman & [Howard Hughes CEO] David Weinreb's profits are robbed from construction workers wages & benefit," a flier alleged.

Union members said they could not discuss the matter with the media. Ackman and Weinreb, who also spoke at the event, didn't discuss the issue in their remarks.

The event, co-chaired by Ackman and UBS Private Wealth Management executive Mark Axelowitz, benefits the Boys & Girls Harbor, a nonprofit that provides education and other services to children in New York.

—By CNBC's Lawrence Delevingne. Follow him on Twitter @ldelevingne.