These activist investors absolutely crushed it on huge trades

Activist investors are putting cash to work like never before, setting their sights on bigger targets and extracting enormous paydays from companies once thought untouchable.

They’re awash with cash, as investors in search of returns in a low-interest rate environment pump cash in to the strategy.

Some of the boldface names of activist investing have made billions this year alone.

Business Insider takes a look back at some of the most successful plays by activist investors in recent memory.

Carl Icahn & Icahn Enterprises pushed Tim Cook to cut a bigger dividend check

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Carl Icahn has targeted big tech for returns in 2015.

Icahn has made an expected $US5 billion off two trades: Apple and Netflix. Apple was his activist play, with Icahn earlier this year elbowing CEO Tim Cook to use some of the company's cash holdings of nearly $US200 billion to do buybacks. That earned Icahn Enterprises a reported $US3.4 billion profit on Apple.

Jeffrey Smith & Starboard Value bagged $200 million in paper gains on Darden

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Darden Restaurants is the owner of Olive Garden

Jeff Smith spun Starboard out of Cowen Group in 2011, and has already racked up plenty of wins and some impressive returns. The fund took a stake in Darden Restaurants at an average of $US51.03 a share back in 2013. He succeeded in replacing the entire board last year. By the end of trading Thursday the stock stood at $US68.85. Starboard holds more than 11.6 million shares of the stock, giving the firm a paper gain of about $US200 million. Smith and Starboard are now shaking up retailer Macy's.

Rehan Jaffer's H Partners jumps into bed with Tempur Sealy
H Partners successfully ran a 'withhold' campaign against mattress maker Tempur Sealy. This is how they courted other shareholders in the company.

Rehan Jaffer founded H Partners in 2005, after spending years learning alongside legendary and incendiary activist investor Dan Loeb. He successfully executed the first 'withhold campaign' earlier this year at Tempur Sealy, which resulted in the resignation of the CEO and a pair of directors. H Partners bought in all the way back in 2012, when shares were trading at less than half their value today. Now, with a stake of about 10% in Tempur Sealy closing in on a $US5 billion market capitalisation, Jaffer's ability to play patient and calmly pursue an overhaul of the company's board appears to have paid off.

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