A new and rather unexpected suitor has emerged for Fuhu, the children's tablet-maker that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early December: Australian golfer Greg Norman. 

Toymaker Mattel had previously bid $9.5 million to buy Fuhu, which topped Inc.'s list of fastest growing private companies two years in a row. But now the investment wing of Norman's Great White Shark Enterprises (GWSE) has upped the offer to $10 million. GWSE has an existing portfolio of 20 businesses that include clothing, wine, meat, golf course design, and asset-based debt lending. 

On January 5, Norman's company won approval from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware to become the lead bidder for Fuhu. It's far from a done deal, however. Other potential buyers have until Jan. 21 to qualify to bid at the auction. 

At that point, it's possible a bidding war could break out between GWSE and Mattel, or with other suitors. But it's also possible that the auction could end quickly and quietly with GWSE's bid determined to be the best offer. The court ultimately approves the winning the bid, and Delaware's bankruptcy court tends to favor the deal that maximizes the money going to creditors, notes UCLA law professor Lynn LoPucki.

"That's as opposed to concerning themselves with the outcome for employees, customers, or suppliers," he says. 

Mattel did not return requests for comment. Both GWSE and Fuhu declined to comment during the bidding and auction process.

Fuhu, founded in 2008 and maker of the Nabi brand of tablets for kids, rose and fell at a stunning speed. By 2014, when Inc. recognized the company for the second year in a row as its fastest growing private U.S. company of the year, Fuhu reported revenues of $195.6 million in 2013--a 158,957 percent uptick from three years prior.

GWSE's bid is less than 20 percent of Fuhu's 2013 revenue figure, the latest available financial data. Prices in bankruptcy sales tend to be low, but particularly so when the company is short on assets, says LoPucki.

A financial dispute began in 2014 with Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn, also an investor in Fuhu and most well known as the manufacturer of the iPhone. Foxconn delivered product late for the 2014 Christmas shopping season, which Fuhu blamed for its lower holiday sales that year. Foxconn eventually cut off its supply of Nabi tablets, seeking payment from Fuhu's lenders, so Fuhu was left with too little inventory to fill orders.

"The issue is, [Fuhu] doesn't really have anything. The main supplier isn't sending them the goods," says Jude Gorman, general counsel and head of legal business development at Reorg Research, a research firm that focuses distressed debt and bankruptcy filings. "They have a name brand and that is of some value but only if they start making tablets again."

"There are lots of companies that wind up in this situation, where they put all of their supplier eggs in one basket," Gorman notes.

According to court documents, Fuhu has between $10 million and $50 million in assets and $100 million to $500 million in liabilities.

One thing to watch in these proceedings, besides the winning bidder, is what Fuhu management is doing and where it will ultimately land. 

"If the private equity firm wins, it will likely hire someone to run the company," PoLucki says. 

That would be a huge change for a company whose founders have defined the intense culture at Fuhu. When I wrote about Fuhu for Inc.'s September 2014 issue, the company was struggling to cope with employee burnout and concerns about micromanagement. Co-founder and president Robb Fujioka--the man who's had the biggest influence on the company's culture--didn't hesitate when I asked him to describe his management style: It's "a democratic dictatorship," he said.  

"On the one extreme, you can be called a micromanager. On the other extreme, you let the business get away from you," Fujioka said.

Published on: Jan 7, 2016