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Sears dodges another bullet as Eddie Lampert wins bankruptcy auction

Sears dodges another bullet as Eddie Lampert wins bankruptcy auction
Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert is getting another chance to save the bankrupt retailer from liquidation. (CJ Gunther / EPA/Shutterstock)

Eddie Lampert, the dogged billionaire who has hitched his career and reputation to a fading American retail icon, will get another chance at reviving Sears Holdings Corp.

In an agreement reached in the wee hours of Wednesday in New York, Lampert won a bankruptcy auction with a plan that will keep the bankrupt company in business and save thousands of jobs, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The agreement still needs to be approved by the U.S. judge overseeing the bankruptcy.

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Lampert’s offer prevailed over competing proposals from liquidators that would have forced the 126-year-old department store chain to shut down and sell its assets. The bid is valued at more than $5 billion and represents an improvement of more than $150 million over the hedge fund manager’s previous offer, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The agreement caps two days of discussions behind closed doors to determine whether Sears would be worth more dead or alive. Sticking points had included whether Lampert, the former chief executive and current chairman, should be insulated from lawsuits over his previous turnaround deals for the company, Bloomberg previously reported. The final agreement doesn’t include such a release for Lampert, the people said.

Representatives for Sears Holdings and for ESL Investments Inc., the hedge fund run by Lampert that made the offer, declined to comment.

ESL is Sears’ biggest shareholder and creditor. Lampert now faces the challenge of returning a slimmed-down version of the company to profitability after billions of dollars of losses under his management. A court hearing in the Sears bankruptcy case is scheduled for Jan. 18 in White Plains, N.Y.

As Sears, Roebuck & Co., the chain revolutionized American retail with its mail-order catalog. One hundred years ago, the company leveraged the newest technology — the U.S. postal system — to become the Amazon.com of the 20th century.

The retailer boomed in the decades after World War II along with a growing middle class. But it wasn’t able to keep up with shifting consumer habits as online rivals including Amazon.com Inc. siphoned off shoppers, while turnaround efforts were hobbled by mountains of debt.

Sears lost its footing in the 1980s with expansions into financial products such as banking, mortgages, insurance and credit cards while rival Walmart Stores Inc. supplanted Sears as the biggest retailer in the early 1990s.

Since 2009, the number of Sears stores has fallen from 3,900, including sister chain Kmart, to 866 at the time of its October bankruptcy filing. Kmart hasn’t thrived either, shrinking its store count by about two-thirds in the last 10 years.

The winning bid is the latest in Lampert’s long list of maneuvers to turn the company around. Since engineering the $12.3-billion acquisition of Sears by Kmart in 2005, Lampert has cut more than $1 billion in annual expenses, sold off real estate, sold the Craftsman tool brand and spun off clothing unit Lands’ End Inc.

Creditors have said that Lampert initiated transactions that benefited him and have threatened legal action. Lampert has said the deals were properly crafted and kept the chain alive.

The scaled-back Sears chain faces daunting challenges, according to Moody’s Corp. Vice President Christina Boni.

“Scale, which is critical to competing in retail today, will be lacking and its core customer proposition still remains in question,” Boni said. “Sears had been shrinking its store base and reducing costs in recent years but improvement in sales trends and profitability remained elusive.”

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