Having been taken to the brink of liquidation, bankrupt retailer Sears will live to fight another quarter or two, after Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain on Thursday approved Chairman Eddie Lampert’s $5.2 billion bid to keep the once-iconic retailer alive.
The court decision, which had been challenged by Sears' creditors, assures that Lampert’s quest to preserve about 425 stores and 45,000 jobs will continue for the foreseeable future. Drain said on Thursday he will enter the order on Friday, making it official.
For Sears, which filed for bankruptcy in October, Lampert's bid was the only option that could have saved it. The deal though, has been protested by its unsecured creditors, which have lambasted the deal as a "scheme to rob Sears and its creditors of assets." They accused Lampert of using his unique position as Sears' longtime chairman, CEO and largest shareholder to orchestrate deals that unduly benefited him.
As CNBC notes, in a trial that spanned three days and two courtrooms within the White Plains, New York courthouse, Drain overheard a litany of concerns from Sears' unsecured creditors, who pointed to flaws in ESL's business plan and its previous failures running the retail giant. It attacked the bankruptcy sale that Sears ran as it looked for a buyer and argued that ESL's bid was deficient.
Unsecured creditors also hammered home the uncertainty over Sears' future and applied skepticism to the rigor with which it put together its business plan. Sears has yet to hire a number of key executives for the new company, including its CEO – a role Lampert held until he stepped down when Sears' filed for bankruptcy. ESL has an optimistic and profitable view of Sears' future, despite it not having turned a profit since 2010.
"I do recall us missing our plan for every year were I was the board," conceded Kunal Kamlani, president of ESL, who has served on the board since March 2016. Still, Kamlani outlined the vision the company has for its resurgence: it plans to build out smaller stores focused on selling its most popular products like appliances and mattresses. It also expects to operate more profitably by only running 425 of its profitable stores, rather than its roughly 700 stores it was running when it filed for bankruptcy in October.
When Drain inquired whether a smaller footprint also meant for decreased operating clout with suppliers, Sears' Chief Financial Officer Rob Riecker said he believed a smaller scale will help the company "optimize" its inventory, rather than "starving" its unprofitable stores.
In approving Lampert's bid, Drain rejected the creditors' arguments that the sales process was unfair. Lampert countered that his hedge fund has been a constant source of financing for Sears, which kept the retailer alive long after many said the company was due to file (which it did eventually), and that all of his transactions were proper.