As the slow, painful-to-watch decimation of Sears continues at the hands of Eddie Lampert, chairman of Sears Holdings
It's been a crazy ride, with investors bidding the stock up and down, sometimes for no apparent reason. Some things have changed recently, however, that make me think this downward spiral may be Sears' last.
Sears is being picked apart, one bit at a time
Sears must be dizzy with all the spinning off of its various parts that has occurred lately. Lampert sold 1,200 Sears stores just two months ago and recently closed the company's deal with General Growth Properties
More recently Sears' Canadian holdings have been put on the chopping block, and its three stores were sold back to the original developer for $170 million. Sears is also selling Cantrex Group, which it bought out in 2005, though it will keep Corbiel Electrique, which was part of the original deal. Now, Land's End, the outdoor-apparel company that Sears purchased in 2002, looks as if it could also go up for sale. Less than a year ago, Sears Holdings CEO Louis D'Ambrosio identified Land's End as being a "priority" that would help save the company.
Land's End isn't the only brand from which Sears would like to squeeze additional profit. The company has hired a consultant to help it license the Kenmore, DieHard, and Craftsman names to other vendors in an effort to expand their horizons and, at the same time, bring in more cash for Sears. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it does seem the company is looking to others to do what it's unable to do: market itself, and its brands, successfully.
Part of the licensing move could be interpreted as an attempt to stand firm against Home Depot
The real plan? Take the money and run
What is Lampert really up to? In my estimation, he's squeezing all the value out of Sears that he can, piece by piece. He understood the value of the company's real estate holdings early on and knows that selling off assets a little at a time will net him more than selling the whole ball of wax at once, intact.
Much of what Lampert says doesn't jibe with the actions he takes. For instance, many analysts see his parsing out of Sears' saleable parts as a bid for increased cash flow. By the same token, Land's End, for which Lampert paid nearly $1.9 billion, was responsible for $1.7 billion in revenues in 2011. Yet Lampert claims, in his most recent chairman's letter, that Sears has a profit problem, not one of liquidity. How, then, does it make fiscal sense to sell off the company's most profitable assets?
Taking a look at Sears' past five years' worth of financial statements is depressing, as it reflects a continuous downward march toward instability. The company's most recent annual report shows decreasing revenues each year since 2007, as well as decreasing assets. It certainly looks as if Lampert has been picking Sears' bones clean since he acquired the once vital retail giant.
It seems clear to me that Lampert is working toward liquidating the best parts of Sears and then tossing the rest to the wolves. Even the current plans to license the most marketable Sears brands makes sense in that light, since the better known and more profitable those names become, the more value will be wrung from them when the time comes to sell.
Expect Lampert to continue to sell off real estate, as the recent hiring of David Lukes to the company's real estate development arm is surely meant to expedite. After all, Lampert's letter claims that Sears still has more than $20 billion of assets, mentioning specifically real estate holdings and below-market lease contracts. It appears that Lampert still has a way to go before Sears is drained completely -- enough time, one hopes, that investors who are beginning to see the light can get out without being drained as well.
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Fool contributor Amanda Alix owns no shares in the companies mentioned above. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Home Depot and writing covered calls on Lowe's. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.