F(+W)'d. Sears Strikes Back.

F+W Media Files for Bankruptcy; Sears Calls Out Eddie Lampert

🍿Sears = The Gift That Just Keeps Oooooon Giving🍿

Oh, Sears. We just can’t quit you.

On Sunday in “Sears is Such a Drama Queen (Long Contract Interpretation Issues),” we discussed how — SHOCKER!! — there are already problems brewing between Transform Holdco (ESL’s buyer entity) and the debtors’ estate (the seller). Transform Holdco delineated a laundry list of beefs it had with the estate and filed a motion seeking mediation — a thoughtful strategy given that White Plains already foreshadowed how it might come out on any APA interpretation issues. Knowing full well that we were only getting one side of the story — and Eddie Lampert being Eddie Lampert — we hedged a bit:

Given all of the evidence pointing towards administrative insolvency to begin with, any obstreperousness on the part of the sellers (if true, as alleged) is wildly counter-productive: again, the estate is more likely than not administratively insolvent!! It would seem, then, that mediation would be a no brainer (though we reserve judgment for when the sellers respond — which we’re sure will be an entertaining dig at how much they think Lampert is retrading on certain parts of the deal…time to ramp up those PR machines again!!).

Now was that an easy call or was that an easy call?

On Monday night, the debtors responded with a motion to enforce the APA (and the automatic stay) and compel turnover of estate property — the main crux of which is the debtors allegation that Transform Holdco is in breach “by refusing to deliver $57.5 million that are the property of the Debtors….” They allege:

The Buyer’s request for mediation is nothing more than an attempt to delay turning Estate property over to the Debtors by conflating unrelated post-closing disputes (to which the Debtors have fully responded) with the Buyer’s refusal to deliver $57.5 million that plainly belongs to the Debtors per the APA, despite the Debtors’ repeated demands.

And jab:

…the Buyer is well aware of the extent to which the Debtors have limited resources to engage in protracted litigation. The $57.5 million in funds improperly retained by the Buyer are critical to maintaining administrative solvency and the Buyer is jeopardizing the Debtors’ ability to timely file a chapter 11 plan by withholding these funds. Rather than simply turn over the Estate assets, or seek guidance from this Court (which is intimately familiar with the APA and its terms), the Buyer instead conflates its obligation to turn over Estate property with a litany of unsubstantiated claims of misrepresentations and breaches by the Debtors, and requests a mediation that would, at best, delay resolution of any of these issues by more than a month.

And jab, cross:

…if there is a dispute, the Debtors would prefer to keep these issues front and center with this Court, which is most familiar with the APA and the issues facing the Debtors and their Estates, as well as the dynamics currently affecting the Estates. The Motion to Mediate should be seen for what it is: the Buyer’s transparent attempt to delay the transfer of Estate assets to gain leverage in its ongoing effort to sidestep the liabilities which Buyer assumed under the APA, including the $166 million in assumed accounts payable that this Court previously indicated the Buyer would be very unlikely to avoid.

There it is: the ever-controversial $166mm in assumed accounts payable. Can someone please pass the butter for our popcorn?

Is there any wonder that the estate would like to keep any and all disputes in White Plains? The judge’s fingerprints are all over this deal; he’s incentivized to make sure that it proceeds without dispute, that a plan of reorganization gets filed, and that creditors get some sort of shot at a recovery — a shot that diminishes each day given the magnitude of fees that are accumulating in this case. Case and point:

Still, we can’t help but to question certain of the Debtors’ decisions here. This bit was…imprudent…maybe?:

Prior to the time of Closing, the Buyer advised that it had not done the work necessary to implement its own cash management system or to set up its own bank accounts. Meghji Decl. at ¶ 6. As a concession to the Buyer—in order to alleviate the risk to Closing and in an effort to help facilitate a seamless transition of the going-concern business in the interests of, among others, the Debtors’ employees and key stakeholders—the Debtors agreed to give the Buyer possession and control of the Debtors’ cash management system, including its bank accounts as of the Closing Date. Id. ¶ 7.

What is that old cliche about possession and the law? And that one about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? How is it that ESL hadn’t done the work necessary to set up bank accounts? HE HAD TEN FRIKKEN YEARS.

Anyway, to be fair to the debtors, they thought they had contracted around the issue, putting into place a protocol for the repayment of pre-closing-accrued funds that landed in the cash management account post-closing. Nevertheless, apparently ESL and their financial advisors, E&Y, be like:

And so money is apparently due and owing on both sides and the debtors want their money and ESL wants clarification on certain liabilities and trust has apparently broken down in the process. ESL — knowing that Judge Drain will be none-too-pleased — wants a mediator and all the while cash registers are ringing and the estate becomes more and more administratively insolvent.

Like we said on Sunday, “Like…does ANYTHING ever go easy for Sears?


📃F+W Media Inc Attempted to Combat Disruption. It Lost. (Short “Community”?)📃

WAAAAAAY back in September 2018, we highlighted in our Members’-only piece, “Online Education & ‘Community’ (Long Helen Mirren),” that esteemed author and professor Clayton Christensen was bullish about the growth of online education and bearish about colleges and universities in the US. We also wrote that Masterclass, a SF-based online education platform that gives students “access” to lessons from the likes of Helen Mirren (acting), Malcolm Gladwell (writing) and Ken Burns (documentary film making) had just raised $80mm in Series D financing, bringing its total fundraising to $160mm. Online education is growing, we noted, comporting nicely with Christensen’s thesis.

But we didn’t stop there. We counter-punched by noting the following:

Yet, not all online educational tools are killing it. Take F+W Media Inc., for instance. F+W is a New York-based private equity owned content and e-commerce company; it publishes magazines, books, digital products like e-books and e-magazines, produces online video, offers online education, and operates a variety of e-commerce channels that support the various subject matters it specializes in, e.g., arts & crafts, antiques & collectibles, and writing. Writer’s Digest is perhaps its best known product. Aspiring writers can go there for online and other resources to learn how to write.

For the last several years F+W has endeavored to shift from its legacy print business to a more digital operation; it is also beginning to show cracks. Back in January, the company’s CEO, COO and CTO left the company. A media and publishing team from FTI Consulting Inc. ($FTI) is (or at least was) embedded with new management. The company has been selling non-core assets (most recently World Tea Media). Its $125mm 6.5% first lien term loan due June 2019 was recently bid at 63 cents on the dollar (with a yield-to-worst of 74.8% — yields are inversely proportional to price), demonstrating, to put it simply, a market view that the company may not be able to pay the loan (or refinance the loan at or below the current economics) when it comes due.

Unlike MasterClass and Udacity and others, F+W didn’t start as an all-digital enterprise. The shift from a legacy print media business to a digital business is a time-consuming and costly one. Old management got that process started; new management will need to see it through, managing the company’s debt in the process. If the capital markets become less favorable and/or the business doesn’t show that the turnaround can result in meaningful revenue, the company could be F(+W)’d. (emphasis added)

Nailed it.

On March 10, 2019, F+W Media Inc., a multi-media company owning and operating print and digital media platforms, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the District of Delaware along with several affiliated entities. We previously highlighted Writer’s Digest, but the company’s most successful revenue streams are its “Crafts Community” ($32.5mm of revenue in 2018) and “Artist’s Network” ($.8.7mm of revenue in 2018); it also has a book publishing business that generated $22mm in 2018. In terms of “master classes,” the bankruptcy papers provide an intimate look into just how truly difficult it is to transform a legacy print business into a digital multi-media business.

The numbers are brutal. The company notes that:

“In the years since 2015 alone, the Company’s subscribers have decreased from approximately 33.4 million to 21.5 million and the Company’s advertising revenue has decreased from $20.7 million to $13.7 million.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, reflects in concrete numbers, what many in media these days have been highlighting about the ad-based media model. The company continues:

Over the past decade, the market for subscription print periodicals of all kinds, including those published by the Company, has been in decline as an increasing amount of content has become available electronically at little or no cost to readers. In an attempt to combat this decline, the Company began looking for new sources of revenue growth and market space for its enthusiast brands. On or around 2008, the Company decided to shift its focus to e-commerce upon the belief that its enthusiast customers would purchase items from the Company related to their passions besides periodicals, such as craft and writing supplies. With its large library of niche information for its hobbyist customers, the Company believed it was well-positioned to make this transition.

What’s interesting is that, rather than monetize their “Communities” directly, the company sought to pursue an expensive merchandising strategy that required a significant amount of upfront investment. The company writes:

In connection with this new approach, the Company took on various additional obligations across its distribution channel, including purchasing the merchandise it would sell online, storing merchandise in leased warehouses, marketing merchandise on websites, fulfilling orders, and responding to customer service inquiries. Unfortunately, these additional obligations came at a tremendous cost to the Company, both in terms of monetary loss and the deterioration of customer relationships.

In other words, rather than compete as a media company that would serve (and monetize) its various niche audiences, the company apparently sought to use its media as a marketing arm for physical products — in essence, competing with the likes of Amazon Inc. ($AMZN), Walmart Inc. ($WMT) and other specialty hobbyist retailers. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the company’s execution apparently sucked sh*t:

As a consequence of this shift in strategic approach, the Company was required to enter into various technology contracts which increased capital expenditures by 385% in 2017 alone. And, because the Company had ventured into fields in which it lacked expertise, it soon realized that the technology used on the Company’s websites was unnecessary or flawed, resulting in customer service issues that significantly damaged the Company’s reputation and relationship with its customers. By example, in 2018 in the crafts business alone, the Company spent approximately $6 million on its efforts to sell craft ecommerce and generated only $3 million in revenue.

Last we checked, spending $2 to make $1 isn’t good business. Well, unless you’re Uber or Lyft, we suppose. But those are transformative visionary companies (or so the narrative goes). Here? We’re talking about arts and crafts. 🙈

As if that cash burn wasn’t bad enough, in 2013 the company entered into a $135mm secured credit facility ($125mm TL; $10mm RCF) to fund its operations. By 2017, the company owed $99mm in debt and was in default of certain covenants (remember those?) under the facility. Luckily, it had some forgiving lenders. And by “forgiving,” we mean lenders who were willing to equitize the loan, reduce the company’s indebtedness by $100mm and issue a new amended and restated credit facility of $35mm (as well as provide a new $15mm tranche) — all in exchange for a mere 97% of the company’s equity (and some nice fees, we imagine). Savage!

As if the spend $2 to make $1 thing wasn’t enough to exhibit that management wasn’t, uh, “managing” so well, there’s this:

The Company utilized its improved liquidity position as a result of the Restructuring to continue its efforts to evolve from a legacy print business to an e-commerce business. However, largely as a result of mismanagement, the Company exhausted the entire $15 million of the new funding it received in the six (6) months following the Restructuring. In those six (6) months, the Company’s management dramatically increased spending on technology contracts, merchandise to store in warehouses, and staffing while the Company was faltering and revenue was declining. The Company’s decision to focus on e-commerce and deemphasize print and digital publishing accelerated the decline of the Company’s publishing business, and the resources spent on technology hurt the Company’s viability because the technology was flawed and customers often had issues with the websites.

What happened next? Well, management paid themselves millions upon millions of dollars in bonuses! Ok, no, just kidding but ask yourself: would you have really been surprised if that were so?? Instead, apparently the board of directors awoke from a long slumber and decided to FINALLY sh*tcan the management team. The board brought in a new CEO and hired FTI Consulting Inc. ($FTI) to help right the ship. They quickly discovered that the e-commerce channel was sinking the business (PETITION Note: this is precisely why many small startup businesses build their e-commerce platforms on top of the likes of Shopify Inc. ($SHOP) — to avoid precisely the e-commerce startup costs and issues F+W experienced here.).

Here is where you insert the standard operational restructuring playbook. Someone built out a 13-week cash flow model and it showed that the company was bleeding cash. Therefore, people got fired and certain discreet assets got sold. The lenders, of course, took some of those sale proceeds to setoff some of their debt. The company then refreshed the 13-week cash flow model and…lo and behold…it was still effed! Why? It still carried product inventory and had to pay for storage, it was paying for more lease space than it needed, and its migration of e-commerce to partnerships with third party vendors, while profitable, didn’t have meaningful enough margin (particularly after factoring in marketing expenses). So:

Realizing that periodic asset sales are not a long-term operational solution, the Company’s board requested alternative strategies for 2019, ranging from a full liquidation to selling a significant portion of the Company’s assets to help stabilize operations. Ultimately, the Company determined that the only viable alternative, which would allow it to survive while providing relief from its obligations, was to pursue a sale transaction within the context of a chapter 11 filing.

Greenhill & Co. Inc. ($GHL) is advising the company with respect to a sale of the book publishing business. FTI is handling the sale of the company’s Communities business. The company hopes both processes are consummated by the end of May and middle of June, respectively. The company secured an $8mm DIP credit facility to fund the cases.

And that DIP ended up being the source of some controversy at the First Day hearing. Yesterday morning, Judge Gross reportedly rebuked the lenders for seeking a 20% closing fee on the $8mm DIP; he suggested 10%. Per The Wall Street Journal:

Judge Gross said he didn’t want to play “chicken” with the lenders, but that he didn’t believe they should use the bankruptcy financing to recoup what they were owed before the chapter 11 filing.

Wow. Finally some activist push-back on excessive bankruptcy fees! Better late than never.


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📚Resources📚

We have compiled a list of a$$-kicking resources on the topics of restructuring, tech, finance, investing, and disruption. 💥You can find it here💥.


💰New Opportunities💰

Conway MacKenzie is seeking senior-level professionals as part of a significant expansion of their Houston office. 

In addition to Restructuring candidates, they are seeking senior level practice leaders and support staff specializing in Transaction Advisory Services and Litigation Support Services.  Applicants are required to have 10+ years of relevant experience.  Strong preference will be given to those with Big Four and international consulting firm backgrounds.   Relocation packages for those from other markets will be considered.

Qualifying individuals should submit an experience summary to: nklein@conwaymackenzie.com.

*****

PETITION LLC, in conjunction with the one-year anniversary of our Membership launch, is looking to expand the team. Specifically, we are looking for a Chief Strategy Officer (or other commensurate title) to help take PETITION to the next level. The right candidate must be entrepreneurial, commercial, creative and, frankly, not too “corporate.” She/he must be willing to get her/his hands dirty in all aspects of the company, including, first and foremost, leading new strategic initiatives, but also engaging in sales, research/production, administration, etc. We will look at all candidates but financial advisory, legal, and/or journalism experience is preferred. Current Members will also get first look (logically, Members have a much better sense of what we write about and what we stand for). Email us at petition@petition11.com and write “PETITION CSO” in the subject line.


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