☁️WeWork (Long Corporate Governance Wonks)☁️

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Surely you're sick of WeWork — uh, excuse us, “The We Company” — by now. There's been more drama surrounding its upcoming IPO than an episode of The Hills. You’ve likely heard about the $60b-to-$47b-to-$20b-to-$10b valuation drop, the wave pool, the dual-class voting structure, the insider deals between Adam Neumann, landlord, and Adam Neumann, tenant, and so on and so forth. We won’t rehash it all for you. We do have some word limitations. 

We do wonder if the events of the past two weeks are a sign of less frothy times ahead. After all, investors -- equity and bonds -- have gotten so accustomed to getting bent over the last several years that we're going long rheumatologists. Knees must be hurting.


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🚴‍♂️The Rise of Home Fitness: Peloton Files its S-1 (Long Twitter Fodder)🚴‍♂️

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In case you haven’t heard, Peloton Inc. filed its S-1 earlier this week. An S-1 is like a bankruptcy First Day Declaration. It’s an opportunity to sell and control a narrative. In the case of the S-1, the filer wants to appeal to the markets, drum up FOMO, and maximize pricing for a public capital raise (here, $500mm). So, yeah, want to call yourself a technology / media / software / product / experience / fitness / design / retail / apparel / logistics company? Sure, go for it. In an age of WeWork, a la-dee-da-kibbutz-inspired-community-company-that-may-or-may-not-be-valued-like-a-tech-company-despite-being-a-real-estate-company, hell, anything is possible.

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Frankly, we’re surprised Peloton didn’t throw in that it’s a “CBD-infused-augmented-reality-company-that-transacts-in-Pelotoncoin-on-the-blockchain company” for good measure. Go big or go home, dudes! PETITION Note: the bankruptcy/First-Day-Declaration equivalent of this absurdity must be every sh*tty retailer on earth claiming to be an “iconic” brand with loyal shoppers who, despite that loyalty, never spend a dollar at said retailers, all while some liquidators are preparing to sell them for parts:

But we digress.

For those who don’t live in Los Angeles or New York and are therefore less likely to know what the hell Peloton is (despite its 74 retail showrooms in the US, Canada and UK and pervasive ad-spend), it is a home fitness company that sells super-expensive hardware ($2,245 for the flagship cycle and $4,295 for the treadmill)* and subscription-based fitness apps ($39/month). It’s helped create the celebrity cycling trainer and aims to capture the aspirational fitness enthusiast. And, by the way, it’s a real company. Here are some numbers:

  • $196mm net loss (boom!) on $915mm of revenue in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2019 ((both figures up from 2018, which were $47.8mm and $435mmmm, respectively, meaning that the loss is over 4x greater (boom!!) while revenue grew by over 2x));

  • Hardware revenues increased over 100%, subscription grew over 100% and “other” revenue, i.e., apparel, grew over 100%;

  • 511,202 subscribers in 2019, up from 245,667 in 2018;

  • 577k products sold, with all but 13k in the US;

  • a TAM that, while not a ludicrous as WeWork’s the-entire-planet-is-an-opportunity-pitch, is nonetheless…uh…aggressive with total capture at approximately 50% of ALL US HOUSEHOLDS

and;

  • $994mm VC raised, $4+b valuation;

A big part of that net loss is attributable to skyrocketing marketing spend. But, Ben Thompson highlights:

Peloton spends a lot on marketing — $324 million for 265,535 incremental Connected Fitness subscribers (a subscriber that owns a Peloton bike or treadmill), for an implied customer acquisition cost (CAC) of $1,220.18 — but that marketing spend is nearly made up by the incremental profit ($1,161.40) on a bike or treadmill. That means that subscription profits are just that: profits.

The company also claims very low churn** — 0.70%, 0.64%, and 0.65% in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively — though this thread ⬇️ points out some obfuscation in the filing and questions the numbers (worth a click through):

Ben Thompson hits on churn too, noting that major company promotions haven’t rolled off yet:

Only the 12 month prepaid plans have rolled off; the 24 and 39 month plans are still subscribers whether or not they are using their equipment (and given the 0% financing offer, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a lot of them). 

Surely roadshow attendees will have questions on this point and then, market froth being market froth, totally disregard whatever the answers are. 😜

The company also highlights some tailwinds: (a) an increasing focus on health and fitness, especially at the employer level given rising healthcare costs and a general desire to offset them;** (b) the rise of all-things-streaming; (c) the desire for community; and (d) significantly, the demand for convenience. We all work more, weather sucks, the kids wake up early, etc., etc.: it’s a lot easier to work out at home. This thread ⬇️ sure captured it (click through, it’s hilarious):

Which is not to say that the company doesn’t have its issues.*** It appears that like most other fitness products, there’s seasonality. People buy Pelotons around the holidays, after making New Year’s resolutions they undoubtedly won’t keep. There are also some lawsuits around music use. As we noted above, the marketing spend is through the roof ($324mm, more than double last year) and SG&A is also rising at a healthy clip. Many also question whether Peloton’s cult-like status will fizzle like many of its fitness predecessors. And, of course, there’s that cost. Lots or people — ourselves included — have questioned whether this business can survive a downturn.

Indeed, among a TON of risk factors, the company notes:

An economic downturn or economic uncertainty may adversely affect consumer discretionary spending and demand for our products and services.

Our products and services may be considered discretionary items for consumers. Factors affecting the level of consumer spending for such discretionary items include general economic conditions, and other factors, such as consumer confidence in future economic conditions, fears of recession, the availability and cost of consumer credit, levels of unemployment, and tax rates.

And:

To date, our business has operated almost exclusively in a relatively strong economic environment and, therefore, we cannot be sure the extent to which we may be affected by recessionary conditions. Unfavorable economic conditions may lead consumers to delay or reduce purchases of our products and services and consumer demand for our products and services may not grow as we expect. Our sensitivity to economic cycles and any related fluctuation in consumer demand for our products and services could have an adverse effect on our business, financial condition, and operating results. (emphasis added)

Now ain’t that the truth. This will be an interesting one to watch play out.

*****

Questions about the company’s stickiness in a downturn notwithstanding, we ought to take a second and admire what they’ve done here. Take a look ⬇️

Sure, sure, it’s a ridiculous metric in an SEC filing but…but…look at the total number of workouts. Look at the average monthly. Unless Peloton is truly expanding the category, those workouts are coming out of someone else’s revenue stream. Remember: SoulCycle did pull its own IPO some time ago.

In a recent piece about the rise of home fitness and the threat it poses to conventional gyms and studios, the Wall Street Journal noted:

U.S. gym membership hit an all-time high in 2018, but the rate of growth cooled to 2% after a 6% rise the year before, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Much of the decade’s growth has been fueled by boutique studios like CrossFit, Orangetheory and SoulCycle, whose ability to turn fitness into a communal experience has sparked fierce loyalty to their brands. IHRSA says it’s too early to tell whether streaming classes will reduce club visits. CrossFit, SoulCycle and Orangetheory say they don’t see at-home streaming fitness programs as a threat.

We find that incredibly hard to believe. Is there correlation between the slowdown and growth and Peloton’s 128% and 108% growth from ‘17-’18-’19? Peloton may be more disruptive than the naysayers give it credit for.

Back to Ben Thompson:

Like everyone else, Peloton claims to be a tech company; the S-1 opens like this:

We believe physical activity is fundamental to a healthy and happy life. Our ambition is to empower people to improve their lives through fitness. We are a technology company that meshes the physical and digital worlds to create a completely new, immersive, and connected fitness experience.

I actually think that Peloton has a strong claim, particularly in the context of disruption. Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma states:

Disruptive technologies bring to a market a very different value proposition than had been available previously. Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use.

It may seem strange to call a Peloton cheap, but compared to Soul Cycle, which costs $34 a class, Peloton is not only cheap but it gets cheaper the more you use it, because its costs are fixed while its availability is only limited by the hours in the day. Sure, a monitor “underperforms” the feeling of being in the same room as an instructor and fellow cyclists, but being able to exercise in your home is massively more convenient, in addition to being cheaper.

Moreover, this advantage scales perfectly: one Peloton class can be accessed by any of its members, not only live but also on-demand. That means that Peloton is not only more convenient and cheaper than a spinning class, it also has a big advantage as far as variety goes.

The key breakthrough in all of these disruptive products is the digitization of something physical.

In the case of Peloton, they digitized both space and time: you don’t need to go to a gym, and you don’t have to follow a set schedule. Sure, the company does not sell software, nor does it have software margins, but then neither does Netflix. Both are, though, fundamentally enabled by technology.

If Thompson is right about that value proposition, is it possible that, in a downturn, Peloton can win? At $40/class, it would take 57 classes to break even on the hardware and then you’re getting a monthly subscription for the cost of one class. Will people come around to the value proposition because of the downturn?****🤔

Before then, we’ll find out whether the market values this company like a tech hardware company or a SaaS product. And the company can use the IPO proceeds to market, market, market and try and lock-in new customers before any downturn happens. Then we’ll really test whether those churn numbers hold up.

*The company doesn’t break out the success of the two other than to say that the majority of hardware revenue stems from the bike. We would reckon a guess that the treadmill is losing gobs of money.

**It stands to reason that the company would have strong retention rates given the high fixed/sunk cost nature of its product.

***One risk factor is curiously missing so we took the initiative to write it for them:

We sell big bulky products that appeal more to coastal elites.

Unfortunately, given the insanity if housing prices and spatial constraints, a lot of our potential customers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York simply may not have room for our sh*t.

****Unrelated but WeWork’s Adam Neumann insists that WeWork presents an interesting value proposition in a downturn: viable office space without the long-term locked in capital commitment. It’s not the craziest thing we’ve heard the man say.


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🥛How’s Steak ‘N Shake Doing? (Long Horrific Corporate Governance)🥛

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Back in July 2018 in “Casual Dining Continues to = a Hot Mess,” we noted that certain lenders were agitating to engage Steak N’ Shake in restructuring discussions, which is owned by Biglari Holdings ($BH). At the time, the casual dining chain (i) had somewhere between 580 and 616 locations, (ii) was pivoting towards franchisee-owned stores rather than company-owned stores (even though, at the time, the overwhelming majority were company-owned), and (iii) had $183.1mm outstanding on a $220mm term loan due 3/21 that had dipped into the mid-80s, dangerously close to stressed levels. Significantly, the term loan is NOT guaranteed by Biglari Holdings. A big cause for concern? The company also had consecutive years of declining same store sales. We wrote:

In a February shareholder letterBiglari Holdings Chairman Sardar Biglari channeled his inner-Adam Neumann (of WeWork), stating:

We do not just sell burgers and shakes; we also sell an experience.

And if by “experience” he means getting shotbeing on the receiving end of an armed robbery or getting beat up by an employee…well, sure, points for originality

Given all of the above and the perfect storm that has clouded the casual dining space (i.e., too many restaurants, the rise of food delivery and meal kit services, the popularity of prepared foods at grocers), lender activity at this early stage seems prudent.

(Shaking heads).

Biglari reported Q1 earnings on May 3, 2019, and revenues for “restaurant operations” were down by over $20mm. Why? Good question. Allow us to show you:

That is some serious hemorrhaging. Same-store sales were down 7.9% with a 7.7% decrease in customer traffic. On the costs side, higher wages and benefits led to costs increasing as a percentage of sales by 3.6%.

*****

And, now a quick break for PETITION’s Opportunity of the Week:

Source: “Nation’s Restaurant News

Wow. That’s almost too good to refuse! As noted above, a key component of Sardar Biglari’s turnaround plan for Steak ‘N Shake is the conversion of company-owned restaurants to franchises. Because, like, there’s nothing like offloading exposure and suckering some poor saps into a franchisee arrangement to stabilize revenues and lessen exposure. 🖕🖕

And, yet, interestingly, franchise royalties and fees were also down. That conversion plan, therefore, must not be going so well — even with the company having 12 more franchisee-owned locations as of March 31, 2019 than it did on March 31, 2018. For what it’s worth, the company also has 48 fewer company-operated stores (44 of which are in limbo, “temporarily closed until such time that a franchise partner is identified.”). Given the deterioration of the Steak ‘N Shake enterprise, those locations may be closed for a long time.

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We don’t typically lend much credence to SeekingAlpha content but when someone entitles a post, “The Fyre Festival of Capitalism” — a clear riff on the “Woodstock of Capitalism” moniker conferred upon Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting — we have to take a gander. AND. BOY. WAS IT WORTH IT. The piece is a summary of the Biglari Holdings investor meeting that recently took place.

Some choice bits describing “perhaps, the worst corporate governance in America”:

One shareholder asked if Steak n Shake would introduce “vegan hamburgers.” Another questioner asked for applause for the company’s management, a request which was greeted with awkward silence. One shareholder was displaying a copy of John Carreyrou’s Theranos book “Bad Blood” and was asking if people thought Biglari Holdings’ board was like Theranos’ board and if Sardar Biglari was like Elizabeth Holmes (and another shareholder then referenced this in a question).

My perception of Sardar Biglari’s attitude towards Biglari Holdings shareholders reminded me of John Updike’s great line about Ted Williams refusing to respond with a hat-tip to the pleading ovation of Red Sox fans after Williams’ home run in the last at-bat of his career: “Gods don’t answer letters.” This meeting made this point crystal clear: Sardar does not answer to shareholders, nor does he work for them. You [shareholder] want me [Sardar] to buy stock back to close what you perceive as a price-value gap, too bad, I’m not going to do it. If you are upset because the share price went down 58% last year and then the board increased my compensation, sell your shares in the company. If you have any questions about me [Sardar] earning something like $80 million over the previous few years while the market cap of the company is like $250 million, or the employment of Sardar’s family members for “consulting services”, or the company’s Netjets membership, or the opening of Biglari Café so Sardar can spend time in the Port of Saint-Tropez, or anything else for that matter – then sell your shares. If you wonder if he should be spending more time on Steak n Shake after a year in which it lost 7% of its customer-traffic and a three-year period in which it lost 12% of its business – and you have some doubt that his plan to install new milkshake machines (yes this is his turnaround plan) will succeed in stopping the bleeding – then you just don’t believe in his vision and you should sell your shares. If you bought your shares seven years ago and have a significantly negative return on them and suggest to Sardar that it would be great to get a positive return on them at some point, then you just don’t share the same time horizon as Sardar. If you wonder why he calls Biglari Holdings an acquirer but they have only ever done a couple of tiny deals and haven’t made an acquisition of any size in over five years, then you just don’t understand his “program of conglomeration.”

While there is no mention of this in the company’s SEC filings, the second prong to Mr. Biglari’s turnaround strategy for SNS is…wait for it…new milkshake equipment!! That’s right. New milkshake equipment. And it will onlycost $40mm to implement (or $100k per store). Super compelling! Sign us up for one of those available franchises stat!!

So after losing over 7% of their customers last year, 13% of its customers since 2015, and over three straight years of negative customer-traffic and same-store-sales numbers during which time Steak n Shake went from profitable to unprofitable, what is Sardar’s plan to turn around Steak n Shake? What he said at the meeting is that he has a plan to turnaround Steak n Shake and one of the main elements of it is fixing the milkshake making process – so they are creating a new milkshake making process. This is not a joke, this is what his plan is. They are also trying to make homemade ice cream at Steak n Shakes. They think this and other similar improvements is the crux of the turnaround plan (along with the franchise partner plan).

It gets better:

One shareholder commented on how last year, his turnaround plan to fix Steak n Shake was thicker cheese and better bacon – but then they lost 7% of their customers in that year. And the year before his turnaround plan was a new menu launch, but that seemed to accelerate the customer-traffic and same-store-sales losses, or at least did not halt them. Why was this year’s turnaround plan – new milkshake processes and homemade ice cream – going to work when the last few did not?

Spoiler alert: it won’t.

But…maybe cut some cherries?

Sardar Biglari at one point said that Steak n Shake spends $1 million per year on cherries for milkshakes and that he would love to get rid of that $1 million. Three different shareholders pointed out, in conversations, how ridiculous that sentiment is. Decrying having to spend $1 million for cherries on milkshakes while spending $8.4 million on administrative expenses to manage the Lion Fund, spending lavishly on hiring his brother and father at Steak n Shake consultants, maintaining an office in Monaco, the company’s opening of Biglari Café on the Port of Saint-Tropez and the Netjets memberships that the company apparently pays for – anyway, given all of that, shareholders were pointing out that maybe there is a better way to save $1 million rather than eliminating cherries from Steak n Shake’s milkshakes.

More from the shareholder meeting:

The bottom line to me is it seems that Steak n Shake’s problems have not abated – but probably have gotten worse in 2019. He refused to say how they were doing so far in 2019. He just said, “The turnaround is going to take a while.”

How could that be?! With such a rock solid strategy of new milkshake equipment, selling melting ice cubes to franchisees, and cutting cherries?!?

This should be a lightning fast turnaround.


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🍟Casual Dining Continues to = a Hot Mess🍟

Luby's & Steak N Shake Look Stressed (Short Soggy Mac N’ Cheese)

We’ve previously covered this topic in “🍟Casual Dining is a Hot Mess🍟” and “More Pain in Casual Dining (Short Soggy Mozzarella Sticks).” Recall that, back in April, Bertucci’s Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy and said the following in its First Day Declaration:

"With the rise in popularity of quick-casual restaurants and oversaturation of the restaurant industry as a whole, Bertucci’s – and the casual family dining sector in general – has been affected by a prolonged negative operating trend in an ever increasing competitive price environment. Consumers have more options than ever for spending discretionary income, and their preferences continue to shift towards cheaper, faster alternatives. Since 2011, Bertucci’s has experienced a year-over-year decline in sales and revenue."

Unfortunately for those in the space, those themes persist.

On Monday, Luby’s Inc. ($LUB) — the owner and operator of 160 restaurants (86 Luby’s Cafeteria, 67 Fuddruckers and 7 Cheeseburger in Paradise) reported Q3 earnings and they were totally on trend. While the company reported positive same-store sales at Luby’s Cafeteria — its largest brand — the company’s financial results nevertheless cratered on account of increased costs (in food, labor and operating expense) without a corresponding acceleration in sales (via either increased prices or guest traffic). The company’s overall same store sales decreased 0.9%, its total sales decreased 3.1%.

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The company noted:

“…the current competitive restaurant environment is making it difficult for our brand and the mature brands of many others to gain significant traction. We've been faced with the environment for quite some time, which has been a large drag on our financial results and our company valuation.

The challenge of rising costs, flattish-to-down sales, and a sustained debt balance are restricting the company's overall financial performance.”

Like many other chains, therefore, Luby’s is rationalizing its store count. The company previously committed to shedding at least 14 of its owned locations to the tune of an estimated $25mm in proceeds; it is accelerating its efforts in an attempt to generate an additional $20mm in proceeds. The use of proceeds is to pay down the company’s $44.2mm of debt. The company also announced that it hired Cowen ($COWN) to assist it with a potential restructuring of its Wells Fargo-agented ($WFC) credit facility. That hire was a requirement to a July 12-dated financial covenant default waiver (expiration August 10) provided by the company’s lenders.

This company does have one advantage over several distressed competitors: it owns a lot of its locations (in addition to its franchise business; a separate licensee operates an additional 36 Fuddruckers locations). The question therefore becomes whether the company’s lenders will provide the company with enough latitude (via continued waivers or otherwise) to sell enough locations to generate proceeds to pay down or “reduce [its] outstanding debt to near zero.” If patience wears thin or buyers balk at purchasing locations that later may become subject to a fraudulent conveyance attack, this may be yet another casual dining chain to find itself in bankruptcy. The stock, which has been range-bound for about a year, trades as follows:

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*****

Likewise, Steak ‘n Shake is also beginning to look stressed — at least as far as its senior secured term loan goes. The casual dining restaurant company has somewhere between 580 and 616 locations, approximately 2/3 of which are company-owned. According to Reorg Researchit also has a group of lenders who are agitating given (i) under-budget revenues, (ii) liquidity concerns, and (iii) lower loan trading levels. Per Reorg:

The lenders’ move to organize comes as Steak ‘n Shake has shifted its focus from company-owned locations to franchise opportunities in the face of declining revenue, same-store sales and customer traffic as well as increased costs. A wholly owned subsidiary of Biglari Holdings, Steak ‘n Shake is a casual restaurant chain primarily located primarily in the Midwest and South United States; the chain is known for its steak burgers and milkshakes. Biglari says that unlike company-operated locations, franchises have “continued to progress profitably.” “Franchising is a business that not only produces cash instead of consuming it, but concomitantly reduces operating risk,” the 2017 chairman’s letter says.

Even so, 415 of the total 616 Steak ‘n Shake locations are company-operated and creditors are pushing the company to bring in operational advisors, sources say. The company’s $220 million term loan due in 2019, which according to the Biglari 10-Q had $185.3 million outstanding as of March 31, has dipped to the 86/88 context, according to a trading desk. The term loan, which matures March 19, 2021, is secured by first-priority security interests in substantially all the assets of Steak ‘n Shake, although is not guaranteed by Biglari Holdings.

The company has been struggling for years. Per Restaurant Business:

Same-store sales fell 0.4% in 2016 and another 1.8% in 2017. Traffic last year fell 4.4%.

The decline in traffic wiped out the chain’s profits. Operating earnings per location declined from $83,300 in 2016 to just $1,000 in 2017.

Part of the issue may be the company’s geography-agnostic “consistent pricing strategy” which keeps prices static across the board — regardless of whether a location is in a higher cost region. This strategy has franchisees in an uproar which, obviously, could curtail efforts to switch from an owner-owned model to a franchisee model. Indeed, a franchisee is suing. Per Restaurant Business:

For franchisees that operate 173 of the 585 U.S. locations and have to pay for royalties on top of other costs, the traffic declines risk sending many locations into financial losses. In addition, rising minimum wages in many markets, along with competition for labor, could put further pressure on that profitability.

Steaks of Virginia, the franchisee that filed the lawsuit last week, claimed it was losing money at all nine of its locations.

Curious. Apparently the company’s reliance on higher traffic to generate profits didn’t come to fruition. Insert lawsuit here. Insert lender agitation here. Insert questionable business model shift here.

In a February shareholder letterBiglari Holdings Chairman Sardar Biglari channeled his inner-Adam Neumann (of WeWork), stating:

We do not just sell burgers and shakes; we also sell an experience.

And if by “experience” he means getting shotbeing on the receiving end of an armed robbery or getting beat up by an employee…well, sure, points for originality? 👍😬

Given all of the above and the perfect storm that has clouded the casual dining space (i.e., too many restaurants, the rise of food delivery and meal kit services, the popularity of prepared foods at grocers), lender activity at this early stage seems prudent.

WeWork’s Unintentional Comedy

Short “State of Consciousness” Companies

Back in “WeWork Invents a New Valuation Methodology,” we snarked about how WeWork pioneered an entirely new valuation technique. We noted,

"Indeed, to assess WeWork by conventional metrics is to miss the point, according to Mr. Neumann. WeWork isn’t really a real estate company. It’s a state of consciousness, he argues, a generation of interconnected emotionally intelligent entrepreneurs. And Mr. Neumann, with his combination of inspiration of chutzpah, wants to transform not just the way we work and live, but the very world we live in.”

A state of consciousness. A state of effing consciousness. Being a biglaw associate is also a state of consciousness but that doesn’t necessarily mind-port you to partner after 8 years, let alone 12.

We continued,

"Even Adam Neumann, a co-founder of WeWork and its CEO, admits that his company is overvalued, if you’re looking merely at desks leased or rents collected. ‘No one is investing in a co-working company worth $20 billion. That doesn’t exist.’ he told Forbes in 2017. ‘Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than it is on a multiple of revenue.'“

We’re sure bankers all across the world will be happy to add “energy and spirituality analysis” to the lineup of valuation methodologies like precedent transaction, comparable company and discounted cash flow analyses. What the bloody hell.

Then last Wednesday, in 💵WeWork Taps Cap Markets; People Lose Minds 💵, we briefly covered the proposed WeWork’s proposed $500 million high yield bond issuance. People went nuts because the offering memorandum finally shed some more light on the business. And it was a feeding frenzy. Little did we know, that was only Part II of this (unintentional) comedy.

Introducing “Community-adjusted EBITDA.” Per Barron’s:

As The Wall Street Journal reported, while revenue doubled last year, to $866 million, WeWork’s losses also doubled, to $933 million. But WeWork “earned $233 million, based on a metric the company dubbed “community adjusted Ebitda.” That consists of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization — a widely used measure of operating cash flow — but also excludes basic operating expenses, such as marketing, general and administrative, development, and design costs. That’s not in any accounting textbooks I’m aware of.

Per The Wall Street Journal,

“I’ve never seen the phrase ‘community adjusted Ebitda’ in my life,” said Adam Cohen, founder of Covenant Review, a bond research company.

There’s a first time for everything, homie. Or as Bloomberg’s Matt Levine put it,

Well, sure, Mr. Covenant Review, but I bet you’ve never reviewed the covenants of a state of consciousness either. 

Some more choice commentary:

Indeed, Moody’s was mildly schizophrenic (registration required) in its evaluation of the company’s new notes; it didn’t deign to even discuss WeWork’s accounting gymnastics as it assigned a B3 Corporate Family rating and a Caa1 rating to the notes.

Dealbreaker’s Thornton McEnery was far less measured. In lofty prose worthy of a Pulitzer, he led his piece entitled “WeWork’s First-Ever Bond Offering Is A Master Class in Financial Masturbation” with “[n]o company has its head farther up its own ass than WeWork.” We literally laughed out loud at that. But wait. There’s more,

That said, making up your own holistic, artisan, New Age Brooklyn accounting principle just to pretend that you’re hemorrhaging less money than you really are? Well, that’s actually super-ballsy and we’d almost respect it if WeWork wasn’t trying to write down Kombucha on tap and losses associated with ping pong ball replacements. It’s the height of Millennial hipster exceptionalism and it would truly make our skin crawl if, again, we didn’t respect the balls-out ego involved here.

Can you even say “balls-out” anymore? We thought #MeToo killed that. And ping pong? C’mon. That’s so 2014. It’s esporting Fortnite matches that are all the rage now, broheim. Anyways…

Then Bloomberg’s Matt Levine and AxiosDan Primack crashed the party by issuing a bit of defense. Levine’s is here — noting that the calculus is a bit different for bond investors. Primack spoiled some of the fun by clarifying what the new-fangled metric represents:

The metric includes all tenant fees, rent expense, staffing expense, facilities management expense, etc. for active WeWork buildings.

The exclusions are company-wide expenditures, which do not get pro rated. Much of that relates to growth efforts, although not all of it (executive salaries, for example).

One comp, and its not perfect, could be how Shake Shack reports "shack-level operating profit margins."

Bottom line: It's still kind of silly, but less silly than it at first appears. And obviously the ratings agencies and bond markets didn't seem put off.

Silly? Less silly? Whatevs.

Either way, the Twitterati largely neglected to take into account today’s dominant theme-among-themes: yield, baby, yield. Or said another way — per The Financial Times,

WeWork does have substantial backing, blue-chip customers and a good plan to increase profit-sharing leases. A high yield in its first bond, adding 150 basis points or so to the index average yield, would help, too. That could swell the offer above $500m. Even sober bond investors may not prove immune to the appeal of succulents and exposed brick.

Prescient. And bond investors did not prove immune. Nor sober.

Welcome to Part III. This is the part in the story where the record scratches, the jukebox stops, and everyone has an utterly perplexed look on their faces. Like, wait. WHAT? That’s right. Demand for this paper was so high, that it upsized from $500 million to $702 million. And just like that, poof! Adam Neumann looks into the camera, smirks, and then walks down the street like Kaiser-m*therf*ckin-Soze. He can tap the venture capital markets — stateside and abroad (in the case of Softbank) — and the debt market.

The Real Deal somewhat inexplicably stated,

WeWork sold $700 million in bonds Wednesday to investors wary of another startup with unstable cash flow entering the debt market.

Wary? How do you explain the upsized offering then? The only thing people should be wary of are other people who are shocked to see this happening. Again: YIELD. BABY. YIELD. And, to be clear, it was actually $702 million (at 7.785%). The notes are guaranteed by US subsidiaries that hold approximately 60% of the company’s assets at year end; “adjusted ebitda” was also used as the base for leverage requirements under the notes’ covenants. There’s hair all over this thing. The Financial Times took a deeper dive into lender protections as it…

wanted to get a general idea of the rights its bondholders might have if the bonds were sold under the terms laid out in the preliminary prospectus and then Millennials everywhere suddenly decided they would prefer to work from home.

Right, exactly. Or in a cafe where you can sit for hours for $3/day. Anyway, you can read that FT analysis here. Moreover, BloombergGadfly cautions about the rent duration mismatch here — a subject of particular note for restructuring professionals well-versed in section 365 of the bankruptcy code. Bloomberg notes,

WeWork acknowledges that its expenditures "will make it difficult for us to achieve profitability, and we cannot predict whether we will achieve profitability in the near term or at all." Risk is all part of the game for junk investors, and this one looks like it will be priced to go with a fat yield. But the more prudent will take that caveat seriously. 

Investors must’ve REALLY wanted in on the action. Many didn’t take that caveat seriously. Something tells us Burton Malkiel will be adding an addendum to his “Greater Fool Theory” coverage in “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” and this will be the case study.

What explains the enthusiasm? As The Wall Street Journal notes, this isn’t a $20 billion decacorn-x2 for nothing:

The numbers offer some positive signs for WeWork. Its net construction costs per desk fell 22% in 2017 to $5,631. And its corporate business—as opposed to revenue from freelance and small companies—appears to be growing well, as rating agency Standard & Poor’s said in its analysis. The agency said it expects large corporations will occupy 50% of WeWork’s desks within two years, up from 25% today.

But then they flip right around and note,

There also are concerns for investors in WeWork’s growth trajectory. Its revenue per user fell 6.2% to $6,928 in 2017, while sales-and-marketing costs more than tripled to $139 million, representing 16% of revenue, up from 9.9% in 2016.

Taking on debt adds risk to a company whose business model hasn’t been tested in a downturn. Given that its members typically sign monthly or annual leases, a drop in demand during a recession would mean the rents it charges tenants would fall, while the payments it owes to landlords would stay constant.

Nevertheless, the market spoke. It gobbled up those bonds.

But then, in Part IV, the market spoke again, mere days later. As Bloomberg noted,

WeWork Cos.’s bonds extended their losses on Tuesday, as investors who were at first enthused to get a piece of the action have since been cashing in their chips.

The $702 million of speculative-grade bonds, which sold last week at par, fell for the fourth straight day on Tuesday to 95.75 cents on the dollar, according to Trace bond-price data. That’s a sharp contrast to the outsized orders the company saw when it marketed its debt in primary markets last week.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 11.14.51 AM.png

And then they kept falling.

Source: Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

Per Trace, the bonds last printed on Friday, May 4 at 94.9 — a pretty impressive decline on the week (h/t @donutshorts).

This sequence of events likely has bondholders screaming, “Yield, baby. YIELD!!!”

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PETITION is twice-weekly newsletter covering disruption from the vantage point of the disrupted. We meander sometimes to other areas. This piece was in today's Members'-only newsletter. You can check us out here and follow us on Twitter here.

Elizabeth Warren vs. the Bankruptcy Bar

A Reminder That Disruption Takes on Many Forms

Warren pic.jpg

PETITION is, broadly speaking, a newsletter about disruption. As loyal readers have surely noticed, the predominant emphasis, to date, has been tech-based disruption. But, spoiler alert, there are other forms. Earlier this week, Senators Elizabeth Warren and John Cornyn proposed a bill that swiftly reminded a cohort of (mostly Delaware) legal professionals that legislation, if passed, can be an even more immediate, powerful and jarring form of disruption.

Let’s take a step back. Shortly before Christmas, the Commercial Law League of America (CLLA) indicated that the U.S. Senate should consider a new bankruptcy venue reform bill. The gist of the proposal is that a debtor should have to file for bankruptcy in its principal place of business (or where their principal executive offices reside) - as opposed to, as things currently stand, its state of incorporation (the "Inc Rule"), where an affiliate is located (the "Affiliate Rule"), or where a significant asset is located (the "Abracadabra Rule"). Notably, a large percentage of companies are incorporated in Delaware, a state with well-established and well-developed corporate laws and legal precedent. Consequently, thanks to the "Inc Rule," Delaware is typically the most sought after venue by debtors, perennially topping annual lists with the most bankruptcy filings. In other words, the state of Delaware is the biggest beneficiary of the status quo. 

Putting aside the Inc Rule for a moment, the “Affiliate Rule” and “Abracadabra Rule,” respectively, have provided debtor companies with wide and crafty latitude to file in jurisdictions other than that of their principal place of business. Again, typically Delaware (and then, to a lesser extent, New York). Have a non-operating subsidiary formed in Delaware? Venue, check on the "Affiliate Rule." Got a random (unoccupied) office you set up last week in a WeWork in Manhattan? POOF, venue! Check on the "Abracadabra Rule." Got a bank account set up (a week ago) with JPMorgan Chase Bank in New York? Venue, again check on the "Abracadabra Rule". It is, seemingly, THAT optional. All of this is like saying that despite the entire automobile industry being manufactured, headquartered and principally-based in Detroit, General Motors ($GM) should file for bankruptcy in New York rather than Michigan. Oh, wait. That actually happened. Take two: that’s like saying that despite the entire automobile industry being manufactured, headquartered and principally-based in Detroit, Chrysler should file for bankruptcy in New York rather than Michigan. Damn. That also happened. Ok, here’s a good one: that’d be like saying it’s okay for the Los Angeles Dodgers to file for bankruptcy in Delaware rather than California. Wait, SERIOUSLY!?!? WTF. Who is to blame for this outrage? 

We'll keep this simple, lest this become a treatise absolutely nobody will want to read: federalism. Bankruptcy law is federal but every state has their own courts, circuit courts, and legal precedent. Some states have bankruptcy courts that are historically more favorable to debtors (cough, Delaware...need that incorporation business) - which, speaking commercially and realistically - are de facto clients of the state. Currently, debtors typically choose the venue so if you want to drive debtors to your courthouse steps, favorable corporate and debtor-favorable bankruptcy case precedent goes a long way towards filling court calendars. Not to mention hotels. In this regard, the bankruptcy court isn't all too dissimilar from a large tech company. Go fast and furious to market, aggregate a ton of users (here: debtors), acquire talent (read: judges), and build a database full of information (read: precedent) to then use against everyone else who tries to compete with you. That aggregation is the moat, the competitive advantage. Say, "we're the most sophisticated due to our talent, data, and predictability" and win. Boom. Dial up the Hotel Du Pont please!  

As a consequence of federalism, one jurisdiction's "makewhole provision" enriching bondholders is another jurisdiction's "no recovery for you" enraging bondholders. One jurisdiction's "restructuring support agreement" is another jurisdiction's "meaningless bound-to-be-blownup-worthless-piece-of-paper." That's the beauty of venue selection, currently. The system allows debtors to choose based on that precedent. Ask any of your biglaw buddies about "venue analysis" and watch their eyes roll into the back of their heads. That is, if you're even still reading this. They've all had to do it. It's a big part of the filing calculus. And everyone knows it. 

Enter Senators Warren and Cornyn. They're saying, "No way, Jose. This sh*t needs to stop." Okay, they didn't say that, exactly, but Senator Warren did say this, "Workers, creditors, and consumers lose when corporations manipulate the system to file for bankruptcy wherever they please. I’m glad to work with Senator Cornyn to prevent big companies from cherry-picking courts that they think will rule in their favor and to crack down on this corporate abuse of our nation’s bankruptcy laws.” The argument goes that the bill “'will strengthen the integrity of the bankruptcy system and build public confidence' by availing companies, small businesses, retirees, creditors and consumers of their home court." Ruh roh. 

A few years ago, a heavy hitter lineup of restructuring professionals were asked by The Wall Street Journal what they thought about this venue debate. The general upshot was "nothing to see here." With apologies for the paywall attached to the following links, you'll get the general idea. See, e.g., "the myth of forum shopping." See, also, "venue reform is a solution in search of a problem."
“allowing fiduciaries to exercise their business judgment about what filing location might maximize enterprise value or reduce execution risk or both.”“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”"the current status quo of wide venue choice – should win out.”“It’s not clear that these rules are problematic, so don’t apply a fix with its own set of unintended consequences.”“The truth is that venue provisions are very appropriate and do not need to be adjusted”"Letting debtors choose as they can now is 'good business sense.'"; and "current venue requirements 'strike a fair balance.'” In summary, you've got Senators Warren and Cornyn up against a LARGE subset of the bankruptcy bar. And those aren't all Delaware practitioners. That's a cross-section of the entire bar - with some financial advisors and investment bankers thrown in for good measure. Pop us some popcorn.

Now, we've been highlighting venue shenanigans since our inception. Not because it's wrong to leverage a favorable venue with uber-favorable precedent if you have that option; rather, because it has gotten so FRIKKEN OBVIOUS. Clearly an industry with $1750/hour billing rates isn't known for its subtlety. Want a third-party release to shield the private equity bros? St. Louis here we come! Have the opportunity to take advantage of a "rocket docket" and get those billable rates rubber stamped? Godspeed. Want to issue a "Standing Order" to divert bankruptcy traffic (back) into your court? May the Force be with you. 

That last bit is particularly notable. Venue gaming got so blatant that even the courts got in to the game. That "Standing Order" is as patent an acknowledgement of venue manipulation as anything we've seen of late. Why did this happen? Take a look at the case trends. After a few early (small) oil and gas exploration and production companies (E&P) filed in Texas and things, uh, didn't go particularly well for professionals, a deluge of E&P debtors mysteriously started popping up in Delaware. That's basic cause and effect. The subsequent cascading secondary effect was the "Standing Order" which, in response, guaranteed professionals that they'd get one of two judges and that, effectively, the Texas courts were open for business. Once that Order came out, debtor traffic curiously reverted back to Texas. E&P management teams and creditors could be heard in their home jurisdiction. Local firms could become "local counsel." Delaware counsel's loss was Texas counsels' gain. (If only the same could be said for lead counsel). Naturally, then, both the Texas Bankruptcy Bar Association and Texas Hotel & Lodging Association back the proposed bill: it basically fortifies the Standing Order. Also, guess where Senator Cornyn is from? Alexa, please cancel that Hotel Dupont reservation. 

We're not taking a position in this debate. We have no skin in that game. But we can't help but to chuckle at the timing. Ironically, it seems that more and more debtors are filing near their principal place of business rather than Delaware anyway (cough, third party releases!). See, e.g., Toys R Us, rue21, Payless Shoesource. And so this has the potential to reinforce a recent trend and compound the issues that have already surfaced for Delaware professionals. 

This is nerdy sh*t. But it’s still big deal disruption. Just disproportionately for the Delaware bar and the city of Wilmington. It’s so big that even iHeartRadio released a podcast discussing it. Without irony. Dramatic disruption AND comedy. 

Who knew bankruptcy could be so entertaining?

Dov Charney = Bankruptcy Pro

This is a long holiday weekend in need of a longform beach read. So here is a recent piece about American Apparel's founder and iconoclast, Dov Charney. Why bother? Well, because Charney probably knows more about retail restructurings at this point than half of you. We kid, we kid. 

Anyway, trust us and take a look. The article demonstrates how in ten short years the retail space has dramatically changed. Charney expanded from a B2B wholesaler to a B2C brick-and-mortar destination in an astounding amount of time (sidenote: Charney's architect running the expansion was none other than WeWork co-founder, Miguel McKelvey). Will we ever see that level of retail expansion again? It doesn't seem likely. 

Otherwise, American Apparel's double vault into bankruptcy is well documented by this point. Charney tried to buy the company out of the first bankruptcy for $300mm; he was denied. He didn't try to buy it the second time which came a cold 6 months later and the company sold its intellectual property to Gilden Apparel for $88mm. Gilden then shut down the entirely of the retail footprint (and the company's Los Angeles warehouse). Now Charney is launching "Los Angeles Apparel" and going all Clint Eastwood on Gilden. We love a good showdown. 

If, at this point, you're thinking "This is my long holiday weekend and I don't want to stress out by reading something about that dumba$$, Charney," well, we get it. So, a few highlights to otherwise spare you:

Choice Quote #1: "...the private equity firms can't wait to get out. They want a pay day. They're not looking to hang around or create something unique, or win accolades for their creativity. They're measured by how much money they can extract from the business. They're not interested in the customer; it's not about authenticity." PETITION note: see, e.g., Payless Shoesource, rue21 Inc., Gymboree, Claire's Stores...arggh, you get the point. 

Choice Quote #2: "'The money's not talented...[t]he money doesn't create the value. Basically the hedge funds and the private equity firms - and it's not all of them - they hire these consulting firms. What these guys do, they just come in, they raid the company - basically the suits take over. But it hasn't worked out in fashion, as far as I can tell." PETITION note: see, e.g., Wet Seal, rue21, Gymboree, Claire's Stores...arggh, you get the point. Query also: which consulting firm is he referring to? Hmmm.

Choice Quote #3: "To avoid over-production, some of those smaller players go as far as crowdfunding their inventory, waiting for a minimum order from their customers before they even contemplate production...." PETITION Note: we've been wondering whether inventory-by-crowdfunding would become more of a trend. Significantly, Elon Musk has been doing that with new Tesla models: make an order and pay a deposit. He he can then know precisely how many new models to manufacture and project cash needs accordingly. Andreesen Horowitz folks cover this topic in this interesting podcast. Moreover, other big brands are using crowdsourcing for consumer product goods. Retail is a tough business these days: we wonder whether additional brands will deploy crowdsourcing to create awareness/buzz and manage inventory simultaneously. Stay tuned and watch this trend.

Want to tell us we're morons? Or praise us? Cool, either way: email us

Real Estate & Retail

Before the holidays, Vornado Realty Trust ($VNO) CEO, Steve Roth, issued his shareholder letter. We recommend you read it (particularly starting with Page 15) but this choice quote about sums it up: "I do not believe we can grow our way out of this mess. I believe the only fix for brick and mortar retailing is rightsizing by the closing and evaporation of, you pick the number, 10%, 20%, 30% of the weakest space. This very painful process will surely take more than five years. It will also create enormous opportunity for those with the capital and management platforms to feed on the carnage."  He also discusses, briefly, WeWork and exposure to Sears and KMart. You can read the letter here: it doesn't read like a sterile SEC document and so we highly recommend it. Meanwhile, this is where all of that retail spending went, apparently.