Sears, the iconic American retailer, is now just a shell of its former self, and Wall Street retail analysts say responsibility for that can be laid at the feet of owner Eddie Lampert and his hedge fund ESL Investments.
However, Lampert — once ranked the richest person in Connecticut — may be smiling all the way to the bank, critics say. They charge that he has milked the venerable retailer dry since taking control of bankrupt Kmart in 2005 and using the retailer’s shares to help him acquire Sears, Roebuck & Co.
“Eddie Lampert has very clearly taken a functioning asset and stripped it of every single shred of profitable component in order to make a profit for himself, and arguably investors, while employees and the public are left to deal with the rotten carcass,” said Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy for All Coalition, a vocal opponent of many hedge funds.
After making his initial $6 billion on Sears through 2009, the hedge fund tycoon has stripped this American icon of most of its famous brands, say analysts.
And despite it all, most estimates have Lampert still in the black with about $1 billion in profits despite plunging sales and huge multibillion-dollar losses eroding much of that early gain, according to an analysis for The Post.
“He got an excellent deal on Sears, and bought it on the cheap,” said Andrew Denney, founder and CEO of Prosperity Financial Group. Denney agrees that Lampert — who controls 48 percent of Sears stock through his ESL Investments — is still ahead by $1 billion, despite losing as much as $5 billion on his investment since 2010.
Lampert’s strategy today? Store closures, cost-cutting and asset sales that have raised much-needed cash — the recent sale of its Craftsman brand alone raising $900 million.
And then there’s the complex financing deals that may insulate him in worst-case scenarios and help maximize his returns from interest on money his fund has lent Sears, analysts say.
The sums include $500 million in a senior secured loan from ESL Investments, carrying interest of 8 percent. A shareholder complaint recently claimed Lampert “pulled in at least $19 million from fees and interest payments” from a $400 million loan made in 2014.
“I think he will make money off the deal, in the end,” Denney added.
As the future closes in for Sears’ 170,000 or so workers on doomsday watch financial experts monitoring the rapid descent of the once-proud giant across nearly 700 stores nationwide say Lampert may be eyeing his next huge payday.
Lampert’s asset sales have previously included real estate for $2.7 billion; Lands’ End, $360 million; Sears Canada, $80 million; and Sears Hometown, $45 million.
“But you can’t cut your way to prosperity in the long term,” said Robert Rostan, principal and CFO at Training The Street.
Denney thinks Lampert’s next big gain may emerge if, as many expect, Sears goes belly up. That wipes out his equity stake — currently in multimillion-dollar negative territory — but transforms Lampert into Sears’ principal creditor.
“That’s where he will make money being in a first lien position on all his debt,” Denney said.
“Eddie will be able to sell off a lot of assets very much like in a Gordon Gekko-style scenario, and at least get paid back some of the secured notes he has made to the company,” said Denney.
“The tag line is how Eddie is cashing in as Sears is cashing out.”
ESL Investments had no comment for this story.