US Tries To Wrest Control Of Hostess Liquidation As Management Seeks To Pay $1.75 Million In "Incentive" Bonuses
The Hostess bankruptcy liquidation, the result of a bungled negotiation between the company, its equity sponsors, its striking workers, and the labor union, over what has been defined as unsustainable benefits and pension benefits, is rapidly becoming a Ding Ding farce. The latest news in what promises to be an epic Chapter 22 fight is that the judge, pressured by various impaired stakeholders, among which none other than the US trustee, is that the bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, who has previously presided over such Chapter 11 cases as Loral, RCN, Cornerstone, Refco, Allegiance Telecom, Delphi, Coudert Brothers, Frontier Airlines and Star Tribune, has ordered the company and its unions to seek private mediation to attempt averting what the company has already said is an inevitable unwind of operations.
Per Reuters, "Hostess, its lenders and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) agreed to mediation at the urging of Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain of the Southern District of New York, who advised against a more expensive, public hearing regarding the company's liquidation. "My desire to do this is prompted primarily by the potential loss of over 18,000 jobs as well as my belief that there is a possibility to resolve this matter," Drain said." Sadly, this latest step will almost certainly lead to nothing constructive as it merely extends a status quo which already proved to be unresolvable.
What makes a mediation improbable is that the antagonism between the feuding sides has certainly hit a level of no return:
Several unions also objected to the company's plans, saying they made "a mockery" of laws protecting collective bargaining agreements in bankruptcy. The Teamsters, which represents 7,900 Hostess workers, said the company's plan would improperly cut the ability of remaining workers to use sick days and vacation.
In the off chance that mediation does lead to a reconstruction of the failed company it may ironically benefit from the closeout sale of its products as confused Americans hoarded Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Hos in hopes of selling them on Ebay as collectible items with huge marks up, something we warned previously will fail. Regardless, the firesale will lead to a surge of cash in the company's coffers, which will then lead to a scramble over how it is divided.
Then comes the question of whether or not someone steps up in the liquidation process and buys the company in part or whole. Here we learn that Grupo Bimbo, long expected to be the natural suitor for at least the firm's trademarks and IP, will not participate in said process. Hostess CEO Rayburn said Grupo Bimbo won’t be a potential buyer for the bankrupt baker. “One misconception in the market is that Bimbo would be a buyer and bakery leadership told us in several plants that Bimbo would come in and buy, which is absurd,” Rayburn said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. Rayburn cited Bimbo’s agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to sell some Sara Lee brands in order to complete its acquisition of Sara Lee’s North American bakery business. “Due to antitrust, it would never happen,” Rayburn said.
More to the point, and as we predicted on Friday, if there is an outright purchase of the company, it will be a standalone entity, without its unions: Hostess will draw strategic buyers and private-equity investors for its brands, Rayburn said, without naming potential bidders. The company is “more attractive” to buyers without the unions, he said. In other words, if the Union had hoped that their workers would be retained by the purchasing entity, their dreams just got shattered.
But while the Union may be sad, it is about to add another emotion to its arsenal: blind fury. Because it is here that things get truly surreal. As the US Trustee, a Justice Department official responsible for protecting creditors, disclosed, as part of the wind down of Hostess, wants to pay as much as $1.75 million in incentive bonuses to 19 senior managers during the liquidation.
This is just part of the millions to be spent imminently on the wind down:
The process requires “intensive” planning, staffing and funding, the company said. A fire-sale liquidation would damage equipment and result in improper disposal of waste materials.
It’s “not a simple matter of turning off the lights and shutting the doors,” Hostess said in court papers.
The baker estimated that shutting the plants will cost $17.6 million in the next three months. The plants have about $29 million worth of excess product ingredients, Hostess said.
About $6.9 million will be spent to close depots, while $8.8 million will be used to idle retail stores and $8.1 million will go to shutting corporate offices, according to a court filing. Perishable baked goods at retail stores will be sold at going-out-of-business sales, donated to charity or destroyed, Hostess said.
Most importantly, however, is the question how one explains to 18,500 workers who are already out and looking for jobs that the management team which was just as responsible for crushing the company deserves on average $92,000 each in "incentive bonuses, is anyone's guess and one does wonder what safety precautions said management team may have taken to protect from what is certain to be the collective wrath of its former workforce.
Naturally, the immediate outcome of this rather obscene demand, which may fly in a Chapter 11 KERP proposal but hardly is tenable in a liquidation proceeding, is that said US Trustee is now seeking to take control of the liquidation away from the company. As BBG reported earlier, "U.S. Trustee Tracy Hope Davis asked the judge to convert the case to a Chapter 7 from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, based partly on the company’s intent to pay bonuses, and appoint a trustee to supervise the wind-down."
But wait, it gets better: because it is quite likely that should an emboldened US Trustee get her wishes granted, will push to continue operating Hostess as a going concern, potentially with a court appointed, and US Trustee selected management team.
In essence this could result in a stealth nationalization of the junk food maker, which would preserve the jobs of the workers for the time being, but crush the balance of the capital structure, i.e., secured and unsecured creditors.
Impossible, you say? It has happened, to a big extent, before. Recall a certain bankruptcy case of one General Motors, where the claims of creditors were primed by those of the labor unions.
Granted, such a perversion of the bankruptcy process would be historic, but in a country in which everyone is to blame for everything, and in which property rights are becoming a very nebulous concept, we would certainly not be surprised if the US government ends up "bailing out" Hostess by a mandatory flipping the capital structure, over the cries of the company's creditors, further pushing the country into the twilight Banana zone.