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Eat with Bill Ackman, and help a charity: Lunch with billionaire investor hits the auction block

Julia La Roche
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Hedge fund billionaire William A. Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital, will be the main attraction at a private lunch with two guests in New York City, as part of a charity auction.

Bidding kicked off Wednesday on the auction site Charitybuzz, offering the chance to meet the wealthy investor over a meal where the winner can “discuss the world of finance!" According to the website, the lunch will take place on a "mutually agreed upon date" and last for approximately 1-2 hours — and Ackman will pick up the tab.

This is the auction’s second consecutive year, and will benefit The David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit that introduces and promotes the practice of Transcendental Meditation for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), inner-city children, and women who are victims of domestic violence.

Transcendental Meditation is a practice that's popular within the finance community. Billionaire investor Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates — the biggest and most successful hedge fund in the world — credits the practice of transcendental meditation as the single biggest reason for his success.

"Maybe this will be a catalyst for my being more meditative. It is great for mental health and wellbeing. I'm a believer. I'm not as much of a practitioner as I would like to be,” Ackman told Yahoo Finance.

It was Ackman’s friend Mark Axelowitz, managing director at UBS Private Wealth Management and vice chairman of the David Lynch Foundation, who introduced him to transcendental meditation and the foundation.

The proceeds from the auction will help the foundation launch a new program called "21 to None," that will bring transcendental meditation to military veterans. The idea is to reduce the epidemic of suicides among veterans, with an estimated 21 taking their lives each day.

"We are very grateful to Mr. Ackman for his generosity because it's going to allow us to teach more veterans and save lives," Bob Roth, the CEO of The David Lynch Foundation, said.

Ackman has also agreed to match the winning bid.

Not like other ‘Masters of the Universe’

Bill Ackman, CEO and founder of Pershing Square Capital, visits the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Bill Ackman, CEO and founder of Pershing Square Capital, visits the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Ackman’s charity lunch is still relatively new, but it’s reminiscent of the famed Warren Buffett lunch that benefits the GLIDE Foundation. For its 20th anniversary, Buffett’s lunch auctioned on eBay (EBAY) fetched a whopping $4.6 million bid.

For Ackman’s inaugural lunch in 2018, entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson, who runs Victoria, Canada-based tech holding company Tiny, shelled out $57,700.

It turned out to be an excellent investment that led to a friendship and business partnership. Ackman’s family offices invested in one of Wilkinson’s portfolio companies, and was his first time accepting outside capital.

What’s more, Ackman left a good impression on him.

"My business partner and I were left blown away by how well it had gone,” Wilkinson told Yahoo Finance. “We've met lots of these Master of the Universe types. So often, it's interesting, but it can be intimidating and intense. Bill did a good job of putting us at ease."

The 53-year-old investor was incredibly generous with his time, blocking off the entire afternoon for the occasion.

In November, over a feast at high-end Italian restaurant Marea, Wilkinson and his partner spent nearly four hours peppering Ackman with questions, ranging from raising kids to Starbucks (SBUX) (his newest investment at the time) and even the pros and cons of taking a company public.

Afterward, Ackman invited the pair back to Pershing Square's offices to meet the rest of the team.

"I learned a lot. I would have done it for free," Ackman said. "I was sufficiently impressed with him, and what he was up to that I ended up investing. It was a productive lunch for both of us. What's interesting is when someone pays $50-60,000, it's probably not a waste of their time or mine."

Wilkinson also ended up investing with Ackman’s Pershing Square Holdings, the firm's publicly-traded vehicle. That move has also paid off, with Pershing Square gaining 54.5% year-to-date — far outpacing the S&P 500 Index and the hedge fund indices.

This week, Ackman and Wilkinson will have lunch again — but this time as just friends.

From teenage tech wiz to investor

Wilkinson, a thirty-something millennial, told Yahoo Finance the story of how he "Forrest Gump-ed" his way into investing.

Growing up in Canada, he was always interested in technology and computers. At age 15, his family moved from Vancouver to the smaller city of Victoria, which he thought at the time was "the worst thing that's ever happened."

As a teenager, he used his spare time to learn how to build websites using old computers. He came up with a clever way to procure new equipment by starting a website to review tech products. He would review the products, and then sell what he didn't use on eBay — and began making thousands of dollars.

He started writing stories, hiring writers for his site, attending tech conferences, and securing ad sales.

“I was obsessed with running this publication and basically skipped school. It was an amazing experience. I got to meet Steve Jobs and interview him. Crazy stuff for a 17-year-old.”

At the urging of his architect father, he reluctantly enrolled in college but immediately became disenchanted. He ended up dropping out of school and moving back home to Victoria with almost no money. His goal was to save enough so he could move to Silicon Valley, but he had to start over because he had given away his website.

Around 2006, he started doing freelance design software for internet applications before they became ubiquitous.

“I ended up realizing that this was a tremendous business, and if I pretended to be an agency instead of just me, I could charge a lot more. I started doing that,” he said.

Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit on October 10
Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit on October 10

He formed the company MetaLab and started landing more prominent clients. Since that time, it’s grown into one of the top design agencies with clients, including Google (GOOGL), Disney (DIS), Amazon (AMZN), Uber (UBER), and Slack (WORK).

By 2012, he was running five companies as CEO with hundreds of employees.

“I was ready to tear my hair out,” he said. “A mentor of mine said, ‘Look, go sell one. That will set you up to have enough money not to have to worry about your financial situation. Learn how to delegate and hire executives.’”

He sold one of the businesses and found himself sitting on more money than he had ever seen. After that, he started reading books about stocks and investing. The first book he picked up was Alice Schroeder’s “Snowball,” a biography of Buffett.

“When I read about Buffett, everything clicked for me,” he said.

After that, he started trying his hand in buying “wonderful internet businesses” and improving them. That led him deeper into the world of value investing where Ackman’s name would frequently pop up.

“Watching [Bill’s] lectures and talks, something about the way he presented ideas totally clicked,” he said.

Similar to Ackman’s approach to investing, Wilkinson is not a completely passive investor. “We often buy businesses, and we make a series of improvements,” he explained.

Wilkinson’s Tiny looks for businesses with “significant profits” that have a “high-quality team in place.” He also likes “simple internet businesses that have high margins, don’t require tons of people or complex technology, and have a competitive advantage that protects them from competitors.”

Calling Wilkinson “focused,” Ackman complimented him for being self-educated. “He meets lots of interesting people, which I think is a smart strategy. He applies a lot of that knowledge. He's a big Buffett and Munger follower. He's a real operator.”

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance.
Follow her on Twitter.