Is Eddie Lampert looking to save Sears or suck it dry?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images
Sep 25, 2018
George Anderson

If the only responsibility of business is to make a profit within the rules of the game as Milton Friedman once wrote, then ESL Investments, the hedge fund run by Edward Lampert with a controlling interest in Sears Holdings, appears to be fulfilling its duty. The same cannot be said for the parent company of Sears and Kmart, which is also run by Mr. Lampert. It is facing bankruptcy as early as next month if something isn’t done quickly to renegotiate its debt and increase revenues.

Mr. Lampert has a plan to keep Sears Holdings going, but will it help revive the retailer or just allow ESL to get more value from its investment before the decision to liquidate its remaining assets are made?

Yesterday, the board of Sears Holdings chaired by Mr. Lampert, announced that it was in receipt of a proposal by ESL that recommends it renegotiate $1.1 billion in debt that will come due in 2019 and 2020. It also proposed that the company sell real estate valued at $1.5 billion and assets including the Kenmore brand and Sears Home Services to raise another $1.75 billion.

Mr. Lampert offered last month to buy Kenmore for $400 million, a business that Sears Holdings had valued at $500 million as recently as April, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The truth is that there may be no other option for Sears Holdings to stay in business if it doesn’t take ESL’s deal. If it used all the proceeds from the steps proposed, Sears could cut its debt from $5.5 billion to around $1.24 billion, according to a filing by ESL. 

The hedge fund’s filing, with no apparent sense of irony, said the retailer “must act immediately to have sufficient runway to continue its transformation.” Sears Holdings has lost $11.7 billion since 2010, the last year it turned a profit, according to CNN. Same-store sales for the company were down 3.9 percent for the quarter despite operating in a favorable retail market. Sears and Kmart, which operated more than 3,500 stores combined when they merged in 2005, currently have fewer than 900 stores.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think there is any chance of a turnaround for Sears Holdings if it follows the recommendations of ESL Investments?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"ESL may walk away with the prized brand assets and real estate portfolio that Lampert always coveted, but Sears as an ongoing retail operation is doomed sooner or later."
"Eddie Lampert figured out a way to enrich himself by creating the world’s longest liquidation sale for this century-old brand."
"...rather than being fluid Sears tried to resist fundamental market changes. As Napoleon once said — “the logical end of defensive warfare is surrender.”"

Join the Discussion!

22 Comments on "Is Eddie Lampert looking to save Sears or suck it dry?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

This. Is. Nuts. So ESL is going to save Sears? Can’t we make this sad abomination go away now?

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Exactly my thoughts. It’s a complete abomination in every sense.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Sears is unfortunately beyond the point of evolving or transforming with the times. It’s very doubtful that Sears has any future, even if they follow the recommendations of the ESL Investment Group. Sears might be able to buy some time, yet ultimately the brand has been so diluted and overloaded with significant debt that any hope of a financial turnaround is next to impossible.

Similar to Toys “R” Us’s very unfortunate end, Sears’ only chance of survival is if they are acquired and that their debts are taken on. It is a sad ending to a once iconic retailer, who once dominated and redefined what mass merchandising could be.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is not about saving Sears because, frankly, Sears is now well beyond saving. There is no business strategy here. No long term thinking. No vision. What this is about is maximizing the gains for ESL before the inevitable happens and Sears collapses.

Having vultures pick over the withered carcass of Sears is a sad end to a once world-renowned retailer. It is the result of terrible, awful management.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
I don’t have high hopes for Sears because even if they sell off more assets and work out a deal with creditors, I don’t see any real strategy that’s going to bring back sales. Their stores are tired, outdated and don’t provide any desire to shop. Appliances are okay, but apparel is not and the more they sell off critical brands like Craftsman and now Kenmore the less reason there is to go to Sears. In addition to selling off assets, the plan also calls for creditors to exchange debt into equity and I do not see that working at all. Vendors have been burned by too many retailers, most recently Toys “R” Us, and realize they’re better off just cutting their losses sooner rather than later. So the plan may look good on paper, but I’m doubtful of its success. What Sears should do is put someone at the helm who has a plan to save the company starting with taking a small number of stores and building the Sears of tomorrow, a store… Read more »
Anne Howe
BrainTrust

The transformation runway has already shut down, IMHO. I also believe today’s business models include more of a role for purpose, people and culture, not just profit within rules of the game. Eddie Lampert is a sad example of retail leadership in this era.

Tom Dougherty
BrainTrust
There is no chance for Sears to survive. It saddens me that one of the iconic brands in retail allowed its brand to die in neglect. The Sears brand had value, once upon a time. But management never grasped what that value held. Instead, they tried to hold onto a model whose time had past. Reinvention is necessary in branding. As the context of the customer changes, brands need to adapt and, at times, change radically. But rather than being fluid Sears tried to resist fundamental market changes. As Napoleon once said — “the logical end of defensive warfare is surrender.” I worry that many retail pillars will also fall. The changes that doomed Sears were slight tremors compared to the quake we are experiencing today. The temple is about to collapse on the worshippers and they think they are safe by pretending the foundation will continue to support them. I write these dire warnings and lead the pack of BrainTrust experts in DISLIKES. I want to see clothes on the Emperor. But I fear… Read more »
Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Tom – I love your comment about dislikes – not that I agree, but a badge of courage for sure.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

This has become a sad and sick story! I fell out of my chair when I read the following in the article: “Mr. Lampert has a plan to keep Sears Holdings going, but will it help revive the retailer or just allow ESL to get more value from its investment before the decision to liquidate its remaining assets are made?” ENOUGH SAID …

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

ESL may walk away with the prized brand assets and real estate portfolio that Lampert always coveted, but Sears as an ongoing retail operation is doomed sooner or later. This has been true for many years, despite the brave talk of a “transformation,” starting with the shameful lack of capital investment for nearly 15 years. At this point Sears has become irrelevant in some markets and invisible in others (such as here in Milwaukee), so any chance of a revival is slim-to-none. Why any investor would buy into this fantasy today is beyond me.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Sears seems to be in the last few moves of the LBO jenga game where the last assets are pulled from the tower by ESL, leaving an empty shell to fall on the employees and vendors. There is no save left in this one.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Lampert authorized the wording of the filing with a straight face! While I realize these corporate financial gymnastics occur every day, it would be refreshing if some honesty would shine through. It’s about extracting money while continuing to take everyday investors’ money.

Scott Norris
Guest

The real question is if or why any institutional investors continue to give Eddie money, since all he seems to do is destroy shareholder value and employees’ careers.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I used to work for Sears, and it’s tragic to see this abomination (thanks, Paula!) come about. There’s no discussion here … Eddie Lampert figured out a way to enrich himself by creating the world’s longest liquidation sale for this century-old brand. It’s very sad.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Sears was a world of wonder for us kids with their iconic catalogs — before the digital age. That world is long gone.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

We have known for too long what Mr. Lampert and ESL want to do with the remaining few Sears assets. So why all this drama and rehashing his desire for us to know he is this big savior? Go ahead and take the rest of whatever assets remain and turn off the lights.

Mark Heckman
BrainTrust

Having first-hand experience in a corporate environment led by capital infusion, I have learned that the money is always secondary to strategy and implementation if success is to be achieved. Those that already pronounce Sears “dead on arrival” are most likely correct. Years of neglect and bad decisions are very difficult to overcome. If there is an ember of hope still glowing at Sears, it lies in the ability to reinvent itself as a legitimate omnichannel player, rebuilding its internal brands and finding a way back to consumer relevance.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust
Lampert is posturing against a different focus point than most think — and it’s about control. More importantly, Sears still sells merchandise. As a matter of fact over $2 billion worth in the last quarter — and at strong gross margins. About nine months back, Sears was still a top 35 retailer in the U.S. If they don’t go under, Sears revenue will still exceed those of 2017 retail darlings like Sephora, Hobby Lobby or Sprouts. No, this is about control of the organization. Falling into chapter 11 pushes the company into court and possibly debtor control — where Lampert will no longer have the same level of influence. Lampert has been smart by putting Seritage (real estate) and ESL (capital) investments in to maintain this control, but with other debtors in the mix — more specifically the PBGC representing over 100,000 pensioners this control can be diluted, and bankruptcy court judges will have final say. Lampert’s intent is to effectively restructure debt without going to chapter 11 (and avoiding chapter 7 liquidation). Turnarounds can… Read more »
Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust
Mohamed Amer
Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
1 year 2 months ago

The capital structure around Sears is unique and revolves around the roles that Mr. Eddie Lampert holds: as Sears CEO, main shareholder, lender and real estate landlord (via ESL Investments). There is no doubt that Mr. Lampert’s pursuit of a Sears transformation is real (even if it appears to be a moving target) as evidenced by the debt drawdown plan, shuttering unprofitable stores, shedding of assets, and so on. We can argue the (de)merits of the strategy: its appropriateness, timing, and execution over the past several years – but historical share price, quarter to quarter performance, sales projections, and company bond pricing all point to disappointing business results and a dire future.

Regardless of all that, the twist is that for Mr. Lampert the downside is greatly limited by capital structure design. Wearing two hats as retail and hedge fund CEO, the former became a herculean task and so the pivot to extract value via his hedge fund role.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

No.

Jeff Miller
Guest

Not every business and certainly not every retailer stays on top forever and continues to grow. I think so many businesses would be better served by acknowledging that their growth time may have passed and that they are going to slowly wind down a business in the best way that serves shareholders while also trying a few new ideas with what capital they have available instead of trying to do mouth to mouth on what is truly a patient that already has a DNR. Sears and Kmart are so far gone that I can’t see a turnaround ever happening. They last turned a profit in 2010 — that is mind numbing to me.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This has been Lampert’s plan from day one. He knew Sears was always worth more dead than alive. It was all about the real estate and the sell off of brands is just gravy.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"ESL may walk away with the prized brand assets and real estate portfolio that Lampert always coveted, but Sears as an ongoing retail operation is doomed sooner or later."
"Eddie Lampert figured out a way to enrich himself by creating the world’s longest liquidation sale for this century-old brand."
"...rather than being fluid Sears tried to resist fundamental market changes. As Napoleon once said — “the logical end of defensive warfare is surrender.”"

Take Our Instant Poll

How would you rate the odds of Sears Holdings achieving a turnaround if it follows the recommendations of ESL Investments?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...