- The hedge fund run by Sears Holdings CEO Eddie Lampert has received "numerous" inquiries around the possible sale of some of the retailer's assets, according to a letter filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
- In April, Lampert's fund, ESL Investments — which as of February owned 49% of Sears' outstanding common stock — proposed buying the Kenmore appliance brand as well as the Home Improvement Products, Home Services and Parts Direct businesses from Sears. In his original letter to Sears, Lampert suggested ESL might partner with third parties to provide equity financing in a potential purchase of the assets. In a May 25 letter to the special committee, Lampert asked for permission to talk with the parties that have so far expressed interest (and aren't already talking to Sears). Lampert also said in his May letter that "our ability to execute the ESL proposal depends on our ability to engage with partners that can provide strategic and/or management experience to these businesses."
- Sears' prospects for a debt-for-equity exchange, which Lampert outlined in his April letter, may have dimmed. Lampert noted in his May letter that the price of Sears' unsecured debt had risen considerably since he first suggested the asset purchase, making an exchange less attractive for debtholders.
Lampert's complicated financial relationship with the retailer he runs seems to get only more intricate with time. And it could get yet more complicated if ESL takes over some of Sears' last remaining hard assets.
His most recent letter about the proposed sale of some of Sears' most valuable remaining assets raises far more questions than it answers. It does indicate that there is some interest out there in the market, beyond Lampert's ESL, for the assets Lampert wants his fund to buy. But who are the parties? And which assets would they make investments in? What would their role be in an equity purchase? And how much might the assets go for?
(Sears, which in May began exploring a sale of the assets through a special committee, has said that Lampert would not be involved on the retailer's side of negotiations over the assets.)
The big question hanging over the talks is: What does it all mean for Sears?
Many outsiders see Kenmore and Sears' home services business as one of its last remaining draws. After the company sold Craftsman to Black & Decker, some thought it sounded the death knell for the retailer. Since it sold the brand, Lowe's has begun selling the famous tools. Sears still sells the tools as well, and can under the agreement with Black & Decker source them itself (though there have been some very public disputes with suppliers).
Meanwhile, the company, which has been trying to home in on appliances — a historical strength — has broken up with Whirlpool, losing the rights to sell the manufacturers appliances. Moreover, Best Buy and the major home improvement retailers have been increasing their market share, and rival department store chain J.C. Penney has been eyeing Sears' appliance sales and increasing its own sales in the category.
Kenmore, which Sears has previously explored selling without finding takers, is the last big product brand the company owns. It has lost considerable market share over the years but remains relevant. Sears has tried to boost the brand and its audience through a growing partnership with Amazon to sell the appliances on the e-commerce giant's website and connect some products to Alexa.
The risk for Sears in the long run is losing a major draw to its stores by giving up the exclusivity of Kenmore and other assets. Right now Sears badly needs any lure it can get, after comparable sales have fallen in nearly every quarter for the past decade.
In the short run, though, Sears would get something it also badly needs: money. Lampert's bet is that the short term liquidity from asset sales and other moves can keep the company out of Chapter 11 long enough to engineer a turn around — one that many analysts and observers have all but written off for the department store retailer.