October 22, 2018 / 12:47 AM / 23 days ago

Exclusive: Sears chairman Lampert seeks partner for bankruptcy financing - sources

(Reuters) - Sears Holdings Corp SHLD.O Chairman Eddie Lampert is in discussions with at least one potential partner to contribute to a $300 million bankruptcy loan the U.S. retailer is seeking, people familiar with the matter said on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: A view of a Sears store at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia, January 7, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

Lampert’s hedge fund, ESL Investments Inc, has held discussions with Cyrus Capital Partners LP, an investment firm that holds some of Sears’ existing debt, about sharing the burden of funding portions of the $300 million loan, which would be separate from another $300 million bankruptcy loan that Sears’ banks have offered to provide, the sources said.

The sources asked not to be identified because the deliberations are confidential. A Sears spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

Sears’ survival will depend on the willingness of creditors and suppliers to keep the company afloat. Strong sales in the end-of-year holiday season will be key in determining that, putting pressure on the department store operator to secure enough financing to remain operational until then.

Through his hedge fund, Lampert has invested billions of dollars in Sears since he created it in its current form in 2005 through a merger with peer Kmart. As a result, he is the department store operator’s largest shareholder and creditor.

The bankruptcy loan from the banks, including Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) and Citigroup Inc (C.N), falls first in line for repayment in the Sears bankruptcy case, while the $300 million loan that Sears is seeking from lenders including ESL would be repaid afterwards.

Some people representing Sears while it navigates bankruptcy have also privately suggested to Lampert that he should seek to replace the $300 million loan from the banks with his own financing, some of the sources said. This would mean that Lampert would potentially be contributing to bankruptcy loans totaling $600 million, the sources said.

Such a move would potentially consolidate Sears’ obligations during bankruptcy proceedings, and give Lampert more control over the company’s court case since he would essentially be the main so-called debtor-in-possession lender, the sources said. As it stands now, Sears is contemplating having two such loans.

However, it isn’t clear whether Lampert can or is willing to provide financing to repay the banks lending Sears money in bankruptcy, the sources said. Lampert could demur on the idea and remain focused on contributing to the $300 million loan Sears wants that would be subordinated in repayment to the banks, the sources said.  

The sources cautioned that negotiations between Sears, Lampert and other potential sources of bankruptcy financing remained fluid and might not result in a deal. Sears filed for bankruptcy protection in White Plains, New York on Oct. 15 with a plan to close about 142 of its 700 stores by year-end and sell up to 400 of its best-performing stores in an auction in January to a buyer that will keep them operational.

Lampert stepped down as Sears CEO following the bankruptcy filing, and is planning to bid for the stores that go up for sale.

Sears, which has close to 70,000 employees, has not turned a profit since 2011. It struggled with competition from e-commerce firms such as Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), as well as brick-and-mortar retailers such as Walmart Inc (WMT.N).

The company listed $6.9 billion in assets and $11.3 billion in liabilities in documents filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York. A court hearing finalizing bankruptcy financing for Sears is expected during the week of Oct. 29.

Reporting by Mike Spector and Jessica DiNapoli in New York; editing by Greg Roumeliotis and Grant McCool

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