Amid the brutal profit performance in Sears Holdings' (OTC:SHLDQ) last reported quarter, Chairman and CEO Eddie Lampert quietly reminded investors that management is constantly considering non-operating business methods of increasing shareholder value. For the past few years, this has taken the form of spinoffs and asset sales, in addition to tapping the debt markets. As the company continues to try to turn around the retail business, more spinoffs and asset sales are likely to keep Sears' financial staying power. One of the pending segments to be disposed of is Sears Canada -- a somewhat unappealing business beyond real estate value. Another recently mentioned one is much more exciting: Sears Auto Centers.
As opposed to many of Sears' operating businesses, the Auto Centers actually play into a growing industry. As vehicles get more technologically complicated, owners are more inclined to visit mechanic shops instead of pursuing do-it-yourself options. Sears Auto Centers already have a tremendous presence on the U.S. map with more than 700 locations. What's better is that the Auto Center strategy is in the midst of a shift to a franchised-based model -- in line with Sears' overall goal of becoming a less asset-intensive business.
A franchise model would allow Sears to do what it does best -- collect rent and royalties. The reason for a spinoff would be to shore up additional liquidity at Sears Holdings and allow the Auto Centers to operate even more independently from the department stores, though many are already stand-alone operations. In a business largely restrained by a sinking retail segment, the Auto Centers are profit centers.
A business you want to be in
Basic mechanic shops may sound like a relatively boring business to own, but tell that to Advance Auto Parts (NYSE:AAP). The auto part retailing giant has put a tremendous focus on building out a portfolio of mechanic shops to address what it says are quickly shifting industry trends. When the company made its $2 billion acquisition of General Parts, which made it the biggest auto parts provider in the nation, a big part of the strategy was the acquisition of nearly 1,400 Carquest locations -- repair shops. The commercial-repair segment now accounts for more than half of Advance Auto Parts' sales.
Advance Auto Parts has been a market darling for years, enjoying triple-digit gains over a five-year period, and holding a forward P/E of more than 15. Sears Auto Centers, a smaller business, but a pure play on the trend that Advance Auto Parts is pursuing, could command similar attention as a stand-alone business, before factoring in the benefits of a franchise-based model.
If a spinoff occurs, existing Sears Holdings investors would likely receive the distributions in a similar manner to the company's previous spinoffs. While it is not, in itself, a reason to buy Sears Holdings, special-situations investors should remain closely tuned in to the story.