Sears bankruptcy: Sears isn’t liquidating, but it’s still in trouble

Eddie Lampert, the billionaire hedge fund manager who served as CEO of Sears from 2005 until the company filed for bankruptcy in 2018, was responsible for many of the decisions that led to the company’s decline and eventual insolvency. Now he’s pulling Sears back from the brink of liquidation — and saving himself from liability — according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

According to the Journal’s report, Lampert’s $5 billion offer beat out a bid that was supported by most of Sears’s creditors and landlords but would have shuttered all Sears stores and led to tens of thousands of job losses. Lampert’s plan, meanwhile, will keep approximately 400 stores open — but it also underscores how Lampert, who in addition to being Sears’s CEO was its biggest shareholder and creditor, was able to benefit from the company’s decline, and how he may continue to do so. Lampert’s hedge fund, ESL Investments, reportedly owns 40 percent of Sears’s debt; his offer included a $1.3 billion debt forgiveness package, but it also stipulated that he and others be released from liability related to actions that may have devalued the company, the Journal reported.

Lampert infamously ran Sears like a hedge fund during his 13-year tenure as CEO. Taking a cue from the finance world, he divided the company’s departments into 30 distinct units, meaning that the shoe department was siloed from, say, the menswear department. The idea was to encourage competition and make the company more efficient. Instead, executives from different divisions were forced to compete against each other for resources. Between 2006 and 2017, Sears invested less than 1 percent of its revenue back into its stores because Lampert believed Sears should instead focus on online sales, causing many locations to fall into disrepair.

And in 2015, he had the company sell $3 billion worth of property holdings to a fund called Seritage Growth Properties, whose board he happened to chair. According to Lampert, the move was an attempt to raise capital — but as a result, Sears had to start paying rent on properties it previously owned, and that money benefited a company that Lampert was directly tied to. As Jeff Spross wrote for the Week shortly after Sears declared bankruptcy in October 2018, “This is not a way to operate a healthy business. This is the way to extract value.”

Paula Rosenblum, the co-founder of Retail Systems Research, wrote at Forbes that Lampert’s actions directly led to Sears’s decline. “To most observers, he has stripped the meat off the Sears bones and dried them out into beef jerky that his holding company ESL gnaws on periodically,” wrote Rosenblum. “He has sold off assets to the same ESL holdings, taken over the real estate of most of the stores that he collects rents on through Seritage (another of his companies) and managed to make himself the company’ biggest creditor in the process.”

Sears went from operating more than 2,300 stores at its peak in 2006 — this figure includes Kmart stores, which Lampert merged with Sears in 2005 — to fewer than 700 by the time it filed for bankruptcy in October. Lampert’s actions may have temporarily benefited shareholders, including Lampert himself, but they also led to thousands of job losses across the country. And after the company filed for bankruptcy last year, many of the retail employees who had lost their jobs as a result of Lampert’s management strategy stopped receiving severance payments, supposedly because Sears could no longer afford to keep sending them.

“It has been devastating,” Sheila Brewster, an employee who worked at an Illinois Kmart for 17 years, told Vox’s Chavie Lieber. “In addition to losing my job and having anxiety about who is going to hire me, since I haven’t had a job interview in almost 20 years, I am counting on this money. I’m already behind on my rent, and I am the sole provider for my family.” According to the retail workers’ advocacy group Rise Up Retail, thousands of former Sears and Kmart employees have similar stories.

Lampert’s victory will save an estimated 50,000 jobs, according to the Journal’s report, but some retail experts worry that his continued involvement with Sears, which reportedly involves plans to shrink store sizes and refocus on chasing online sales, will only lead to further ruin.

“While there is 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,” Neil Saunders, the managing director of GlobalData Retail, said in a statement. “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.”

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