A couple of hours ago, it looked like Sears' desperate struggle for survival was over. The struggling retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection back in October, closing 150 of its 700 stores. But it was hoping to sell some 500 other stores so they would stay open, along with some of its brands, including the once-market-leading Kenmore.
Despite its troubles and its often-cited failure to adapt to changing times, Sears had in fact lined up a buyer for these assets. The buyer--oddly--was Eddie Lampert. Lampert was CEO of Sears Holding Corp. until October, but stepped down as part of the bankruptcy filing. He remains the company's chairman, and his hedge fund, ESL Investments, remains one of its biggest creditors. ESL had announced that it planned to offer $4.6 billion for the 500 stores, the Kenmore brand, and some other assets.
Some have argued that Lampert's mismanagement is what led Sears to bankruptcy in the first place. That will make it rather ironic if a purchase by Lampert's hedge fund saves the company from closure. Still, you have to believe Sears employees much prefer that outcome to the alternative, complete liquidation.
But there was a problem with Lampert's plan to ride in like the cavalry and save Sears from completely going under: He needed financing for his $4.6 billion buyout, and it seemed no one was willing to provide that financing. Without it, he could not make a formal offer for Sears, at least not one a bankruptcy court would accept.
All over at 4 pm?
Sears itself had set a deadline of 4 pm Eastern Time today for bids on the company. And up until an hour or two before that deadline, it looked like Lampert wasn't going to make it. But now it seems Sears will live to see another day. What changed isn't 100 percent clear at the moment--CNBC reported that Lampert finally lined up financing and made an 11th-hour bid, while the Boston Globe says Lampert and Sears are asking to extend the deadline. Both stories quote anonymous inside sources, and none of the parties to the proceeding are making any public statements for now.
If Lampert has made a bid, the company's advisors must still decide by January 4 whether ESL is a "qualified bidder." And there are other liquidation bidders seeking to sell the company for scrap. The advisors will then weigh the bids against each other, likely taking into account the benefits of having at least some of Sears' tens of thousands of employees retain their jobs. In the meantime, Sears has announced that it is closing 80 more stores in March.
Sears could still come back from the dead. But Lampert, as Sears' biggest investor, has already spent a couple of years trying to save it and failing, and no one else seems eager to give it a try. If you did any holiday shopping at Sears this year, more than likely it was your last time.