💥Sycamore Partners is a B.E.A.S.T. Part I.💥

🔥Rinse Wash & Repeat (Long Sycamore Partners)🔥

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Sycamore Partners is a private equity firm that specializes in retail and consumer investments; it “partner[s] with management teams to improve the operating profitability and strategic value of their businesses.” Back in the summer of 2017, Sycamore Partners acquired Massachusetts-based office retailer Staples Inc. for $6.9b — a premium to the company’s then-trading price but a significant discount from its 2014 high. Your office supplies, powered by private equity! The acquisition occurred shortly after Staples ran afoul of federal regulators who prevented Staples from acquiring Florida-based Office Depot Inc. ($ODP)(which, itself, appears to just trudge along).

Sycamore’s reported thesis revolved around Staples’ delivery unit, a B2B supplier of businesses. Accordingly, per Reuters:

Sycamore will be organizing Staples along three lines: its stronger delivery business, its weaker retail business and its business in Canada, two sources familiar with the deal said. This structure will give Sycamore the option to shed Staples’ retail business in the future, one of the sources said.

The retailer had 1255 US and 304 Canadian stores at the time of the deal. The business reportedly had 48% of the office supply market, generating $889mm of adjusted free cash flow in 2016.

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Fast forward 18 months and, Sycamore is already looking to take equity out of the company. According to Bloomberg, the plan is for Staples to issue $5.2b of new debt ($3.2b in term loans and $2b of other secured and unsecured debt), which will be used to take out an existing $3.25b ‘24 term loan and $1b of 8.5% ‘25 unsecured notes (which Sycamore reportedly owns roughly $71mm or 7% of).* This is textbook Sycamore, so much so that it’s actually cliche AF — or as Dan Primack said, “…this sort of myopic greed gives ammunition to private equity’s critics.” Like this guy:

And this gal:

Talk about reputations preceding…

Anyway, here’s what the deal would look like once consummated:

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That $1b difference is the equity that Sycamore is taking out of the company. What does the company get in return? F*ck all, that’s what. Zip. Zero. Dan Primack also wrote:

Dividend recaps are a mechanism whereby private equity-owned companies issue new debt, and then hand proceeds over to the private equity firm (as opposed to using it to grow the business). Sometimes they don't matter too much. Sometimes they form leveraged anchors around a company's neck. (emphasis added)

Yup. That about sums it up. Here is Sycamore placing a leveraged anchor on…uh…improving “the strategic value” of Staples:

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This is the market reacting to Sycamore’s strategy for Staples:

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If the above GIF looks familiar, that’s because this is like the Taken series: Sycamore has a very particular set of skills. Skills it has acquired over a very long run. Skills that make them a nightmare for retailers like Staples. They look poised to deploy those particular skills over the course of a repetitive trilogy: the first chapter centered around Aeropostale. And here’s how that ended:

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The sequel was Nine West and this is how that ended:

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And, well, you get the point. Staples looks like it may be next to experience those very particular skills.

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Okay, so the above was a bit unfair. In Aeropostale, the company went after Sycamore Partners hard, seeking to ding Sycamore, among others, for equitable subordination and recharacterization of their (secured) claims. Why? Well, Sycamore was not only the company’s term lender (to the tune of $150mm), but it was also a major equity holder with 2 board seats and the majority-owner of Aeropostale’s largest (if not, second largest) merchandise sourcer and supplier, MGF Sourcing Holdings Ltd.

NERD ALERT: for the uninitiated, equitable subordination is an equitable remedy that a bankruptcy court may apply to render justice or right some unfairness alleged by a debtor (or some other party in the shoes of the debtor, if applicable). It is generally VERY DIFFICULT TO WIN on this argument because the burden of proof is on the movant and there are multiple factors and subfactors that the accuser needs to satisfy — because, like, this is the law and so everything has a test, a sub-test, and a sub-sub-test and maybe even a sub-sub-sub-test. Judges love tests, sub-tests, and multi-pronged sub-tests. Three-prongs. Four-prongs. Everywhere a prong prong. Just take our word for it. It’s true.

Recharacterization is another equitable remedy that, if satisfied and granted by the court, would have resulted in Sycamore’s $150mm secured term loan position being reclassified as equity. This is a big deal. This would be like Mike Trout being on the verge of winning the MVP and the World Series AND securing a $350mm 10-year contract only to, on the eve of all of that, get (a) caught partying with R. Kelly til six in the morning with enough PED needles lodged in his butt to kill a team of horses, (b) suspended from baseball, (c) exiled into an early retirement a la Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds, and (d) forced into personal bankruptcy like Latrell Sprewell or Antoine Walker. Or, more technically stated, since secured debt is way higher in “absolute priority” than equity, this would instantaneously render Sycamore’s position worthless and juice the potential recovery of unsecured creditors. Then there is the practical side: for this remedy to apply, the bankruptcy court would have to make a “finding” that prong after prong has been satisfied and issue an order saying you’re the shadiest m*therf*cker on the planet because you’re actually dumb and careless enough to have met all of the prongs. So, as you might imagine, this is pretty much the worst case scenario for any secured party in bankruptcy and a career ender for the poor schmo who orchestrated the whole thing.

In Aeropostale, the Debtors argued that Sycamore and its proxy MGF engaged in inequitable conduct prior to Aeropostale’s filing, including (a) breach of contract, (b) “a secret and improper plan to buy Aeropostale at a discount” and (c) improper stock trading while in possession of material non-public information. This one had the added drama of arch enemies Kirkland & Ellis LLP (Sycamore) and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP (Aeropostale) duking it out to the ego-extreme. Just kidding: this was all about justice! 😜

Anyway, there was a trial with fourteen testifying witnesses over eight presumably PAINFUL days that, in a nutshell, went like this:

WEIL GOTSHAL: “Sycamore are a bunch of conspiratorial PE scumbags who ran this company into the ground, your Honor!

JUDGE LANE: “Not credible. Good day, sir. I said GOOD DAY!

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KIRKLAND & ELLIS/SYCAMORE:

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In the end, Sycamore fared pretty well. They got nearly a full recovery** and releases under the plan of reorganization. Relatively speaking, the company also fared well. It didn’t liquidate.*** Instead, two members of the official committee of unsecured creditors — GGP and Simon Property Group ($SPG)— formed a joint venture with Authentic Brands Group and some liquidators and roughly 5/8 of the stores survived — albeit as a shell of its former self and with heaps of job loss (improved strategic value!!). Sure, millions of dollars were spent pursuing losing claims but that’s exactly the point: when Sycamore is involved, they win**** and others lose.***** The extent of the loss is just a matter of degree.

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Speaking of degrees, all the while Nine West was lurking in the shadows all like:

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WHOA. BOY. THIS ONE WAS A COMPLETE. AND UTTER. NEXT LEVEL. SH*TSHOW.

We’ve discussed Nine West at length in the past. In fact, it won our 2018 Deal of the Year! We suggest you refresh your recollection why (including the links within): it’s worth it. But what was the end result? We’ll discuss that and the (impressively) savage tactics deployed by Sycamore Partners therein in Part II, coming soon to an email inbox near you.

*At the time of this writing, the unsecured bonds last traded at $108.01 according to TRACE. This potentially gives Sycamore the added benefit of booking significant gains on the $71mm of unsecured notes in its portfolio.

**It’s unclear whether Sycamore recovered 100% but given that they got $130mm under the cash collateral order out of an approximately $160mm claim, it’s likely to have been close. Now, they did lose $53mm on AERO stock.

***A f*cking low bar, sure, but still. Have you seen what’s happening in these other retail cases?

****Putting aside nation-wide destruction, hard to blame LPs for investing in the fund. They get returns. Plain and simple. This ain’t ESG investing, people.

*****Sure, Weil “lost” its attempt to nail Kirkland…uh Sycamore…here but they got paid $15.3mm post-petition and $4.4mm pre-petition so that’s probably the best damn consolation prize we’ve ever heard of in the history of mankind. Weil has, to date, also avoided having a chapter 22 and liquidation in its stable of quals so there’s that too. In retail, you have to take the victories where you can get them.

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💰Private Equity Own Yo Sh*t (Short Health. And Care)💰

Forget Toys R Us. Private Equity Now Owns Your Eyes and Teeth

It has been over a month since media reports that Bernie Sanders and certain other Congressman questioned KKR about its role in the demise of Toys R Us (and the loss of 30k jobs). At the time, in “💥KKR Effectively Tells Bernie Sanders to Pound Sand💥,” we argued that the uproar was pretty ridiculous — even if we do hope that, in the end, we are wrong and that there’s some resolution for all of those folks who relied upon promises of severance payments. Remember: KKR declared that it is back-channeling with interested parties to come to some sort of resolution that will assuage people’s hurt feelings (and pocketbooks). Since then: we’ve heard nothing but crickets.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. What might, however, is the degree to which private equity money is in so many different places with such a large potential societal impact. It extends beyond just retail.

Last week Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management posted a blog post entitled, “If You’re a Seller, Sell Now. If you’re a Buyer, Wait.” Here are some choice bits (though we recommend you read the whole thing):

I’ve never seen a seller’s market quite like the one we’re in now for privately held companies. In almost any industry, especially if it’s white collar, professional services and has a recurring revenue stream. There are thirty buyers for every business and they’re paying record-breaking multiples. There are opportunities to sell and stay on to manage, or sell to cash out (and bro down). There are rollups rolling up all the things that can be rolled up.

In my own industry, private equity firms have come in to both make acquisitions as well as to back existing strategic acquirers. This isn’t brand new, but the pace is furious and the deal size is going up. I’m hearing and seeing similar things happening with medical practices and accounting firms and insurance agencies.

Anything that can be harvested for its cash flows and turned into a bond is getting bought. The competition for these “assets” is incredible, by all accounts I’ve heard. Money is no object.

Here’s why – low interest rates (yes they’re still low) for a decade now have pushed huge pools of capital further out onto the risk curve. They’ve also made companies that rely upon borrowing look way more profitable than they’d ordinarily be.

This can go on for awhile but not forever. And when the music stops, a lot of these rolled-up private equity creations will not end up being particularly sexy. Whether or not the pain will be greater for private vs public companies in the next recession remains to be seen.

The Institutional Investor outright calls a bubble in its recent piece, “Everything About Private Equity Reeks of Bubble. Party On!” They note:

The private equity capital-raising bonanza has at least one clear implication: inflated prices.

Buyout multiples last year climbed to a record 10.2 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. This year they remained elevated at an average of 9.5 times ebitda through May, a level surpassing the 2007 peak of the precrisis buyout boom.

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When you’re buying assets at inflated prices/values and levering them up to fund the purchase, what could possibly go wrong?

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What really caught our eye is Brown’s statement about medical practices. Ownership there can be direct via outright purchases. Or they can be indirect, through loans. Which, in a rising rate environment, may ultimately turn sour.

Consider for a moment the recent news that private equity is taking over from and competing with banks in the direct lending business. KKR, Blackstone Group, Carlyle Group, Apollo Global Management LLC and Ares Management LP are all over the space, raising billions of dollars, the latter recently closing a new $10 billion fund in Q2. They’re looking at real estate, infrastructure, insurance, healthcare and hedge funds. Per The Wall Street Journal:

Direct loans are typically floating-rate, meaning they earn more in a rising-rate environment. But borrowers accustomed to low rates may be unprepared for a jump in interest costs on what’s often a big pile of debt. That risk, combined with increasingly lenient terms and the relative inexperience of some direct lenders, could become a bigger issue in a downturn.

Regulators like that banks are wary of lending to companies that don’t meet strict criteria. But they are concerned about what’s happening outside their dominion. Joseph Otting, U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, said earlier this year: “A lot of that risk didn’t go away, it was just displaced outside of the banking industry.”

What happens when the portfolio companies struggle and these loans sour? The private equity fund (or hedge fund, as the case may be) may end up becoming the business’ owner. Take Elements Behavioral Health, for instance. It is the US’s largest independent provider of drug and alcohol addiction treatment. In late July, the bankruptcy court for the District of Delaware approved the sale of it the centers to Project Build Behavioral Health, LLC, which is a investment vehicle established by, among others, prepetition lender BlueMountain Capital Management. In other words, the next time Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan need rehab, they’ll be paying a hedge fund.

The hedge fund ownership of healthcare treatment centers thing doesn’t appear to have worked out so well in Santa Clara County.

These aren’t one-offs.

Apollo Global Management LLC ($APO) is hoping to buy LifePoint Health Inc. ($LPNT), a hospital operator in approximately 22 states, in a $5.6 billion deal. Per Reuters:

Apollo’s deal - its biggest this year - is the latest in a recent surge of public investments by U.S. private equity, the highest since the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

With a record $1 trillion in cash at their disposal, top private equity names have turned to healthcare. Just last month, KKR and Veritas Capital each snapped up publicly-listed healthcare firms in multi-billion dollar deals.

Indeed, hospital operators are alluring to investors, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Joseph France said. Because their operations are largely U.S.-based, hospital firms benefit more from lower tax rates than the average U.S. company, and are also more insulated from global trade uncertainties, France said.

Your next hospital visit may be powered by private equity.

How about dentistry? Well, in July, Bloomberg reported KKR & Co’s purchase of Heartland Dental in that “Private Equity is Pouring Money Into a Dental Empire.” It observed:

In April, the private equity powerhouse bought a 58 percent stake that valued Heartland at a rich $2.8 billion, the latest in a series of acquisitions in the industry. Other Wall Street investment firms -- from Leonard Green & Partners to Ares Management -- are also drilling into dentistry to see if they can create their own mega chains.

Here’s a choice quote for you:

"It feels a bit like the gold rush," said Stephen Thorne, chief executive officer of Pacific Dental Services. "Some of these private equity companies think the business is easier than it really is."

Hang on. You’re saying to yourself, “dentistry?” Yes, dentistry. Remember what Brown said: recurring revenue. People are fairly vigilant about their teeth. Well, and one other big thing: yield baby yield!

The nitrous oxide fueling the frenzy is credit. Heartland was already a junk-rated company, with debt of 7.4 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization as of last July. KKR’s takeover pushed that to about 7.9, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which considered the company’s leverage levels "very high."

Investors were so hungry that they accepted lenient terms in providing $1 billion of the leveraged loans that back the deal, making investing in the debt even riskier.

Nevermind this aspect:

Corporate dentistry has come under fire at times for pushing unnecessary or expensive procedures. But private equity firms say they’re drawn by efficiencies the chains can bring to individual dental practices, which these days require sophisticated marketing and expensive technology. The overall market for dental services is huge: $73 billion in 2017, according to investment bank Harris Williams & Co. Companies such as Heartland pay the dentists while taking care of everything else, including advertising, staffing and equipment. (emphasis added)

Your next dental exam powered by private equity.

Sadly, the same applies to eyes. Ophthalmology practices have been infiltrated by private equity too.

Your next cataracts surgery powered by private equity.

Don’t get us wrong. Despite the fact that we harp on about private equity all of the time, we do recognize that not all of private equity is bad. Among other positives, PE fills a real societal need, providing liquidity in places that may not otherwise have access to it.

But we want some consistency. To the extent that Congressmen, members of the mainstream media and workers want to bash private equity for its role in Toys R’ Us ultimate liquidation and in the #retailapocalypse generally, they may also want to ask their emergency room doctor, dentist and ophthalmologist who cuts his or her paycheck. And double and triple check whether a recommended procedure is truly necessary to service your eyes and mouth. Or the practice’s balance sheet.

Religionless Millennials + Private Equity = Short David’s Bridal Inc.

Another Private Equity Backed Retailer is in Trouble

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Per the Pew Institute:

In the past 10 years, the share of U.S. adults living without a spouse or partner has climbed to 42%, up from 39% in 2007, when the Census Bureau began collecting detailed data on cohabitation.

Two important demographic trends have influenced this phenomenon. The share of adults who are married has fallen, while the share living with a romantic partner has grown. However, the increase in cohabitation has not been large enough to offset the decline in marriage, giving way to the rise in the number of “unpartnered” Americans.

Maybe the rise in co-habitation among romantic partners and the decline in marriage has something to do with the decline of importance of religion. Note this chart:

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That said, the decline seems to have more to do with millennial attitudes towards religion AND the institution of marriage than anything else.

What does this have to do with any of you? Well, it seems that attitudes towards marriage are creating some retail distress. In June, Alfred Angelo filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy — much to the chagrin of countless brides-to-be who were left uncertain as to the delivery status of their ordered gowns. Take cover…insert peak Bridezilla.

David’s Bridal Inc. swooped in and tried to save the day. Because HOT DAMN retail is cold today. Customer acquisition needs to come from somewhere. And David’s Bridal needs all the help it can get.

The Conshohocken Pennyslvania-based retailer is the largest American bridal-store chain, specializing in wedding dresses, prom gowns, and other formal wear. The company has approximately 300 stores nationally (and declining). It also has approximately $1 billion of debt hanging over its balance sheet like an albatross. Upon information and belief (because the company is private), the capital structure includes a $125 million revolving credit facility, an approximately $500 million term loan due October 2019, and $270 million of unsecured notes due October 2020. The notes are trading at roughly half of par value, reflecting distress and a negative outlook on the possibility of full payment. Justifiably so. With EBITDA at roughly $19 million a quarter, the company appears 9.5x+ leveraged. And you thought YOUR wedding dress was expensive.

Why so much debt you ask? Well, c’mon now. Surely you’ve been reading us long enough to know the answer: private equity, of course. The company was taken private in a 2012 leveraged buyout by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. (Petition Note: Callback to that Law360 article where private equity lawyers and bankers alleged that PE firms take too much flack…HAHAHA).

In light of recent trends and the debt, Moody’s recently downgraded David’s Bridal to “negative,” noting:

"‘In our view, this is a reflection of the intense competition in the sector and casualization of both gowns and bridesmaids dresses," Raya Sokolyanska, a Moody's analyst, wrote in a note to investors.”

Competition? You’ve got that right. H&M is all over this space too — grasping at straws to salvage its own languishing prospects.

Consequently, Reuters reported that the company is in talks with Evercore Group LLC ($EVR) to help it address its balance sheet. If hired, we think it would be hilarious if Evercore included this Marketwatch article entitled, “5 brides share their financial wedding regrets” in its pitch to lenders. Choice bit,

“Clare Redway, a marketing director based in Brooklyn who married in June 2016 said she wishes she spent more on the wedding dress, or at least found a more unique one. ‘I just got mine on sale at David’s Bridal,’ she said.”

That ought to stir up some concessions.

Enough Already With the “Amazon Effect”

Resale and Micro-Brands Are a Big Piece of the Retail Disruption Story

Let’s start with this SHAMELESS Law360 piece (paywall) which doubles as a promotional puff piece on behalf of the private equity industry. Therein a number of conflicted professionals go on record to say that private equity has taken far too much flack for the demise of retail. The piece is pure comedy…

To read the rest of this a$$-kicking commentary, you need to be a Member

Will TOM SHOES Be Another Victim of Private Equity?

Is Blake Mycoskie's Company in Distress?

NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast featuring TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie is great. But it footnotes a big piece of the TOMS story and neglects another entirely: that Mycoskie sold 50% of the company to private equity firm, Bain Capital. And that the company has debt currently trading at distressed levels and faces a potential liquidity crisis.

Let’s take a step back. TOMS Shoes Inc. is an unequivocal success story and Blake Mycoskie is deserving of praise. He took an idea that was originally meant to be purely charitable and created a company that scaled from $300k of revenue in year one to $450mm in revenue in year seven. His "buy-one-give-one" model has resulted in millions without shoes now having shoes. And the model itself has been copied by Warby ParkerBombas, and others, across various businesses. 

That said, for us, this tweet sparked a renewed interest in the company. Many have speculated for years that the TOMS story isn’t all rainbows and unicorns and that there are unintended consequences that emanate out of the one-for-one model. The report referenced in the tweet drives this point home. 

Why is this important now? Because the charity narrative is critical to TOMS. The company cannot afford for the public to sour on the message. Particularly since the company hasn’t been doing so hot lately. Revenue fell nearly 24% YOY in Q2 and EBITDA fell 72% YOY to $5mm. Cash is thinning and the leverage ratio is fattening. S&P downgraded the company back in August. The company's $306.5mm senior secured Term Loan is trading at distressed levels down in the mid 40s, a marked decline from the mid 70s in the beginning of ’17. And that is up from a week or so ago, when it was in the low 40s: this partnership with Apple ($AAPL) and Target ($TGT) helped pump the quote. For those who don't deal in the world of restructuring or distressed investing, a plunge of loan value by nearly 100% is, well, quite obviously a terrible sign. This means, plainly, that the market is pricing in the very real possibility that TOMS will default (and won't be able to pay back its loan in full). 

A positive? There are no near term maturities: the $80mm revolver is due in 2019 and the term loan is due in October 2020. Still, at Libor+550bps, the interest rate on the term loan is a minimum of 6.5% which is a cool $21mm in annual interest expense. And that’s before interest rates rise. The company looks like it will have trouble sustaining its capital structure and there’s no indication that the addition of new SKUs will help the company grow into it. With that interest expense, liquidity is going to get tighter. Those of you paying attention have heard this leveraged-buyout-gone-awry-lots-of-interest-expense story before: it’s the same one as Toys “R” Usrue21Payless Shoesource, & Gymboree

According to S&P, the wholesale business is feeling the trickle down effect of pervasively battered retail with inventory orders on the decline. In a thus far successful effort to maintain margin, TOMS is focusing on operational streamlining. We are guessing that some kind of financial advisor is in there (anyone know?). At a certain point, there are only so many costs you can take out of a business. Does anyone think the wholesale business is set to reverse course anytime soon given the state of retail? We don't. 

Which brings us back to NPR’s podcast. Celebrating how something is built is great and, again, we are big fans. The series has featured a variety of awesome episodes (email us for recs). But it bothered us that we weren't given the whole story. It's not sexy, we get that, but the company's debt load, interest expense, and private equity history should have been the last chapter. What comes next is to be determined. 

Private Equity Track Record

Back in October, Garden Fresh Restaurants* filed for bankruptcy. In January, The Limited Stores* filed and ultimately sold for a pittance to Sycamore Partners. Soon, if the rumors are true, Gordman's will file. What do all of these companies have in common? Sun Capital Partners. Gordman's would be the third Sun Capital portfolio company bankruptcy in five months - which doesn't really enhance the image of private equity firms now, does it? Thousands of jobs are now gone (a typical and increasingly earned PE trope), but Sun Capital has gotten its dividends and fed its LPs. Did Sun generate returns for its LPs? Looks that way. But we're not sure a track record of multiple liquidations is what Sun was hoping for. 

UPDATE: Shortly after publishing this, Gordmans Stores Inc. did, in fact, file for bankruptcy. You can find the case summary for it here

* click on company names for case rosters