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Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI), Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO): Starboard Value Crowned Activist of the Year; 2015 On Pace To Top It

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Jeffrey Smith’s Starboard Capital LP was recently crowned activist of the year by The Activist Investing Annual Review 2015, an annual publication released by Activist Insight, in association with Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. Starboard Value knocked legendary activist Carl Icahn from the top spot, during a year in which activists took up positions in 344 companies, a nearly 20% increase from the 291 in 2013.

Jeff Smith

Jeffrey Smith founded Starboard Value in 2002 as a spin-off of Ramius Capital, after they merged with Cowen Group. The activist-focused fund has an equity portfolio valued at $2.87 billion as of September 30, with their most valuable holding at the time being their 11.64 million shares stake in Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI).

It was Starboard’s successful proxy fight with Fortune 500 company Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI) which was likely the crowning achievement of their 2014 year. After releasing a mammoth, nearly 300-page presentation that ripped the company’s management team to shreds and even went so far as to criticize the absence of salting the water that cooked their pasta at their Olive Garden restaurants, claiming they no longer did so to get a longer warranty on their pots, and that the result was soggy, often overcooked pasta. Starboard managed to get the entire Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI) board ousted later that year, on October 10, to be replaced with all 12 nominees nominated by Starboard. Since then, Darden’s stock has risen by 22.55%.

2015 stands to be an even better year for Starboard Value, as many of the moves they cultivated in 2014 are already bearing fruit in 2015. One of those was its activist positions in both Staples, Inc. (NASDAQ:SPLS) and Office Depot Inc (NASDAQ:ODP), which we speculated last year could lead to them pushing for a merger of the two companies. On February 4, it was announced that Staples would indeed merge with Office Depot, purchasing them for $6 billion.

That announcement came just days after Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) announced they would spin off their remaining 15% stake in Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (NYSE:BABA) into a separate business entity currently dubbed “SpinCo”. That was a move also championed by Smith, and a boon for shareholders, resulting in a tax-free sale that provided the maximum return on the valuable asset for shareholders. Smith has also been pressuring Yahoo to merge with AOL, Inc. (NYSE:AOL), though Yahoo has thus far resisted on that front.

Earlier in January, MeadWestvaco Corporation (NYSE:MWV) announced their intentions to split their specialty chemicals business from the rest of their company, another move that was pushed by Smith and Starboard throughout the second half of 2014. MeadWestvaco’s stock is up 24.03% since Starboard first declared their activist position in the company last June.

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