Among iconic American companies, few stand out quite like Sears (OTCMKTS:SHLDQ). But over the last several years, the formerly ubiquitous retailer made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Based on its recent bankruptcy proceedings, Sears stock appeared headed for an ignominious end.
However, a last-minute reprieve may give the deeply embattled company some critical breathing room. Management agreed to review a revised proposal from Sears chairman and former CEO Edward Lampert. Lampert’s bid was among several during a bankruptcy auction held on Monday.
The news represented a rare glimmer of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Along with the near-complete destruction of SHLDQ stock, the bankruptcy eliminated 68,000 jobs. Lampert’s revised bid provides a tight window to save up to 50,000 jobs. It’s a long shot, but for impacted workers, they have nothing else.
The first step? To buy some extra time, Lampert must post a $120 million deposit by 4 p.m. EST today. Roughly $17 million of the total deposit is nonrefundable. This portion will cover the costs in delaying the bankruptcy auction should Lampert’s revised bid fail.
Naturally, Wall Street responded positively to Sears stock, which surged 30% on Tuesday. It’s easily one of the biggest moves in the company’s history. However, it’s more than likely a case of too little, too late.
For one thing, Lampert is no guardian angel. In his original bid, the former head executive wanted his hedge fund, ESL Investments, to buy SHLDQ out of bankruptcy. But in the $4.4 billion proposal, ESL sought to convert $1.3 billion of Sears debt it holds for an equity stake in the newly restructured organization.
Attorney Abid Qureshi, who represents a committee of Sears stock creditors, asserted that dealings between Lampert, ESL and SHLDQ unfairly benefit certain insiders over others.
Lampert Is Bad News for Sears Stock
I completely agree with Qureshi’s concerns. While this whole creditor issue smacks of “rich people’s problems,” I’m looking at the principle of the matter. Lampert clearly has his personal motives for buying out SHLDQ stock on the cheap.
What drives me crazy about this controversy is that he had a great opportunity to turn the sinking ship around. You can point out Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and its disruptive nature all you want. But during the time Lampert took the reins, Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) began earnestly diving into its rejuvenation strategy.
Through physical restructuring and key investments into lucrative consumer segments, BBY dug its way out of the doldrums. Walmart (NYSE:WMT) achieved similar results through developing its online channels and utilizing its brick-and-mortar footprint to its advantage.
SHLDQ could have easily gone the latter route. Largely through legacy and luck, several Sears stores are located in prime business districts. A few smart decisions could not only have saved Sears stock but tens of thousands of jobs.
Obviously, that’s not how things turned out. The reason again points to Lampert. The controversial figure is probably the worst leader in American corporate history. According to Business Insider, Lampert cultivated a culture of fear and intimidation. Step outside the lines, and you will get “shredded.”
Typically, most employees have a few salty words for upper management, so I usually take such characterizations with some skepticism. But in Lampert’s case, I believe every poor word uttered against him. The man himself has publicly destroyed his own credibility.
A year-and-a-half ago, I criticized the then-CEO for lashing out at the media. Lampert felt that news agencies published “irresponsible” reports about Sears. Apparently, he forgot that he could singlehandedly change the narrative.
He refused, and the public has every right to hold him accountable.
Revamped End Goal Not Clear
But even if we all slipped through a wormhole and into an alternative universe where Lampert emerged victoriously, I’m not sure how this would benefit Sears stock.
Yes, a good chunk of workers will have their jobs back. Surely, this would improve morale, among other sentiments. But if the underlying issues aren’t resolved, we’re going to see another bankruptcy pop up.
And what is the core nagging problem? Management refuses to adapt to changing consumer behaviors. Inexplicably, they rested on their laurels while its competitors worked vigorously to address the e-commerce threat.
If Lampert would spend half the effort he expends on yelling at his subordinates toward revitalizing Sears, SHLDQ stock would be in a much different place. But I believe he relishes being a keyboard commando. That’s good news for his ego, but a terrible indictment on a once proud American icon.
As of this writing, Josh Enomoto did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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