Left to right: John Piermont ’10, Tim Rupert ’09, Grant Bowman ’10 and Bill Ackman

The authors won the 2009 Pershing Square Value Investing and Philanthropy Challenge, which was made possible through a gift from Bill Ackman and Pershing Square Capital Management LP and awarded through the Heilbrunn Center for Graham and Dodd Investing.

Participating in the Pershing Square Challenge is the type of experience you go to business school for. Where else in the world do you have the opportunity to pitch a stock to a panel of value investing legends including Bill Ackman, John Griffin, Dan Loeb and Bruce Greenwald?

Our team came together quickly — Tim and Grant worked together over the summer at Blue Ridge Capital and John and Tim knew each other through the CIMA mentor program. Despite other recruiting, academic, and personal (like Grant’s son Griffin) commitments, we all agreed that our goal was to win the competition and that would be a priority for each of us.

We were keen to find a short to differentiate our work from the other 45 teams that were going to have very strong long ideas. After reviewing different sectors, for-profit education appeared to still be attracting rich valuations despite the severe downturn in the market and a questionable customer-value proposition.

We split the sector into three areas and each of us conducted initial diligence on a subset of companies. After reviewing all the major for-profit education stocks, we settled on the Apollo Group (parent company for the University of Phoenix) for three reasons. First, it had a rich valuation. Second, it has questionable business practices, and, lastly, the company cost U.S. taxpayers $250 million dollars through defaulted loans that the government guarantees. We believed highlighting the government subsidy of corporate profits dovetailed with the philanthropic goals of the competition.

We worked on the idea all semester, coming together weekly to discuss the team’s progress and ideas for different analyses. As we neared the submission deadline the measured pace became frantic and our weekly meetings turned into daily ones. In spite of our differing styles and opinions — Grant wanted to explain every detail, John wanted to explain nothing, and Tim wanted a balance — we shared a common goal and our discussions, though at times heated and lengthy, always ended with agreement.

After all the groups presented in the finals and we were waiting for the results, the three of us were remarkably calm. We all had a feeling of accomplishment, not from winning (we hadn’t heard the results yet!), but from putting together what we thought was a thorough and convincing stock pitch. Our feeling turned out to be spot on — we had won the competition and a prize of $25,000 to be used as a gift back to the School.

We took the responsibility of directing Mr. Ackman’s $25,000 gift very seriously. We agreed the money should be used to support both students interested in investing and students who will make a broader impact on society. We hope Mr. Ackman is pleased that the money will be going to scholarships for veterans returning from military service (as part of the Yellow Ribbon Program), a student with a focus on investing and community service, and to the Heilbrunn Center to support the value investing curriculum at Columbia Business School.

We would like to thank Bill Ackman for sponsoring the competition, the judges for taking the time to give us feedback, Erin Bellissimo and the Heilbrunn Center for supporting the competition and the class, professors Paul Sonkin ’95 and Caryn Zweig ’98 for their support in and outside the classroom, and all the mentors who took their personal time to help students and provide feedback throughout the semester.

Photo courtesy of the Heilbrunn Center