Monday, 17 July 2017
Sears Canada and Criminal Capitalism
Vulture Capitalism - the following exert from iPolitics gives some insight as to what ails the current 'capitalist' system in the Western world.
The coming bankruptcy of Sears Canada has been purposefully engineered so that those at the top could steal the pensions of the thousands of employees who actually deserve the money.
Instead a select few top level executives will walk away with their million dollar bonus cheques and the biggest shareholder Eddie Lampert is set to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars once he is finished selling off Sears assets piece by piece. All the while telling employees their will be no severance payments.
What are your Financial Regulators and Mr. Bill Morneau doing about it? Absolutely nothing.
As the 2,900 just-terminated employees of Sears Canada try to figure out how they’ll feed their families — and the remaining 14,000 Sears workers contemplate their future at the doomed retailer — spare a thought for Edward S. Lampert.
Eddie Lampert is the hedge fund manager who has been the controlling shareholder of Sears and Kmart in the U.S., and of Sears in Canada during its long, sad decline. Miraculously, he has managed to line his pockets while thousands of employees have lost their jobs and are watching their retirement plans melt in the summer sun.
If Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos represent the brilliance of American capitalism — individuals with exceptional new ideas who built transformative businesses — Lampert represents its corrupt core, the kind of robber baron who takes a venerable firm, strips it of every valuable asset and leaves the dregs to employees, suppliers and landlords to fight over in bankruptcy court.
Lampert is no small-time guy. A hedge fund billionaire, he hit number 67 in the Forbes List of the 400 Richest Americans. His 288-foot super-yacht (named The Fountainhead after the novel by Ayn Rand, goddess of the libertarian right) is reportedly valued at US$130 million. In 2012, as Sears in the U.S. was reporting a US$2.4 billion loss, Eddie bought himself a US$40 million mansion on Indian Creek Island in Florida.
Lampert owns 45 per cent of Sears Canada. Sears Holdings, also controlled by Lampert, owns another 12 per cent. The stock is now essentially worthless.
In the meantime, thousands of retail workers at Sears Canada — who worked for decades for modest wages in the expectation of severance pay if they lost their jobs, and a defined-benefit pension when they retired — now find they aren’t getting a cent in severance and risk seeing their pensions reduced significantly. (Sears Canada has sought court protection from its creditors in the hope of reviving the business or selling it off. Neither prospect seems likely. It probably will end up in liquidation.)
The U.S. parent, Lampert-controlled Sears Holdings, is in only slightly better shape. It announced in March that “substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” It too has been selling off assets for years as customers flee its stores and the company continues to add to its losses.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised. Sears has long been a dying business. Probably nothing could have saved it. In an age of online shopping, aggressive discounters and smart luxury retailers, Sears is like a rusting old Ford Crown Victoria — comfortable, inefficient.
And Eddie Lampert was the last thing the company needed if it was to have any hope of surviving.
According to Mark Cohen, a former Sears Canada CEO, Lampert may have known something about running a hedge fund but he knew nothing about retailing. Lampert, Cohen told the New York Times, “stripped Sears of its assets. It’s the longest liquidation in retail history. His reputation in the retail industry is that he’s a financial pirate.” In the U.S., as in Canada, Lampert has sold off valuable real estate and assets like the Craftsman tool brand.
According to Cohen, who now teaches at Columbia Business School, Lampert “seemed to think he was smarter than anyone in the retail business but he had no idea how to run the company from Day 1. One thing I teach is that core competencies are the basis for success or failure. Lampert had no experience in retail and no management competency whatsoever.”
Sears’ decline in Canada has been underway for a long time, precipitated by massive shifts in the retailing landscape. Perhaps that decline began way back in 1994, when Walmart entered the Canadian market and started undermining the vast middle-market where Sears was a dominant player. Or maybe it started in 1999, when Eaton’s went bankrupt and Sears bought up what was left.
But Sears was so big and so well-established that it was hard to think it would disappear — until Lampert got his hooks into the company and decided to milk it for every cent he could. I knew Sears was a goner in 2013 when it decided to sell off the leases on its best store locations for $400 million, including its location at Toronto’s Eaton Centre. Around the same time, it sold off its stake in eight Quebec malls for another $315 million.
Doug Campbell, Sears Canada’s CEO at that moment in time (the company cycled through corporate leaders faster that you could say ‘golden parachute’), claimed that “unlocking the value of assets is a lever we use as a way to help create total value.”
Translation: We’re desperate for any cash we can extract from this dying company, even if that means selling off our best assets.
And what did Sears Canada do with the money? Modernize its remaining stores? Build a competitive website? Invest in its underfunded employee pension plan? Hell, no. In November of 2013, Sears Canada announced a $5-per-share special divided, a total of $509 million — half of which went to Lampert and his Sears Holding Corp. in the U.S. A year earlier, it had issued a similar dividend of $102 million.
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