CHICAGO (CBS/AP) — A last-minute reprieve for Sears, after the retailer’s former CEO made the winning takeover bid in a bankruptcy auction.
Sears chairman Eddie Lampert won the bankruptcy auction, after he boosted his bid for Sears to roughly $5.2 billion, a bid that will allow the iconic chain to avoid liquidation.
That means the retailer’s 425 stores would remain open, and thousands of workers would keep their jobs.
The deal has one final hurdle to clear, as a bankruptcy court judge must sign off on the sale. A hearing has been scheduled for later this week.
Lampert was the only bidder seeking to buy the whole company, through an affiliate of his hedge fund, ESL.
Whether Sears, founded 132 years ago as a mail order watch business, can survive in the Amazon era remains questionable. Already, Sears has outlasted Toys R Us, Sports Authority, Bon-Ton Stores and dozens of others that were unable to survive the torrents of a massive recession and unrelenting technological change.
Sears, which also operates Kmart, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October. At that time, it had 687 stores and 68,000 workers. At its peak in 2012, its stores numbered 4,000.
Lampert, who gave up the CEO title when the Sears filed for Chapter 11, says there’s still potential for the company.
Industry analysts are not so sure.
“While there’s no doubt that a shrunken Sears will be more viable than the larger entity, which struggled to turn a profit, we remain extremely pessimistic about the chain’s future,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “In our view, Sears exits this process with almost as many problems as it had when it entered bankruptcy protection. In essence, its hand has not changed, and the cards it holds are not winning ones.”
To survive, Sears needs to overhaul its business, revitalize aging stores and focus on major appliance and tools sales, say industry analysts. Still, it won’t be easy. Walmart, Target and others have been heavily investing in stores and expanding online. The difference is that they have the capital to keep spending.
Under Lampert, Sears has survived by spinning off stores and selling brands that had grown synonymous with the company, like Craftsman. Lampert has loaned out his own money and cobbled together deals to keep the company afloat, though critics said he has done so with the aim of benefiting his ESL hedge fund. ESL has maintained that the moves put much needed cash into the business.
Lampert personally owns 31 percent of the Sears’ outstanding shares and his hedge fund has an 18.5 percent stake, according to FactSet.
Four years ago the company created a real estate investment trust to extract revenue from the enormous number of properties owned by Sears. It sold and leased back more than 200 properties to the REIT, in which Lampert is a significant stake holder.
He stands to realize a big tax gain keeping Sears alive, using the company’s years of net operating losses to offset future taxable income if one of his other companies takes over the chain, says David Tawil, president and co-founder of Maglan Capital, which follows distressed companies.
Tawil and others believe Lampert wants to be in full control of liquidating Sears’ assets, including real estate.
Lampert combined Sears with Kmart in 2005, about two years after he helped bring Kmart out of bankruptcy. He pledged to return Sears to greatness, but that never happened.
The company, hammered during the recession and outmatched in its aftermath by shifting consumer trends and strong rivals, hasn’t had a profitable year since 2010 and has suffered 11 straight years of annual sales declines. Lampert has been criticized for not investing in the stores, which remain shabby.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)