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Win or lose, Sears & # 39; leader can still come out on top

by ANNE D & # 39; INNOCENZIO, AP Retail Writer

In this November 1[ads1]7, 2004, film photographer Kmart is listening to Edward Lampert during a press conference to announce the merger of Kmart and Sears in New York. As Sears teeters on the brink of collapse, there is a man in the center of the battle for the future of the iconic dealer. (AP Photo / Gregory Bull, File)

NEW YORK (AP) – As Sears teeters on the brink of collapse, a man stands in the midst of the struggle for the future of the iconic dealer.

Eddie Lampert plays several often conflicting roles in what might be the last chapter of the company that began as a mail order business 132 years ago. He has been chairman, CEO, lender and largest shareholder – all at the same time. And he stands to win big if Sears survives.

Sears & # 39; fate – and its Kmart brand – could be settled Monday in a law firm's conference hall high above Manhattan, a block from Central Park. There are those who owe money to Sears, considering the final last ditch plan to preserve 425 stores and 50,000 jobs at a bankruptcy auction.

Lampert, the only one presenting a proposal to save the flounder company in its entirety, has bid for Sears to over $ 5 billion and added a $ 120 million cash deposit through an associated ESL hedge fund. His original $ 4.4 billion bid was rejected by the company's board.

He has publicly stated that he will save Sears, who filed for Chapter 11 protection in October, saying he believes there is still potential for the company, despite his past and lacking efforts to turn it around .

"As long as I've been involved in Sears, I've been deeply concerned about the company, its associates, and the people they serve," Lampert said in a statement sent via ESL to The Associated Press. "While the opportunity I saw from the outset that Sears was able to take advantage of the disruptive changes in retail and technology, has not been drafted so far, it remains to be taken. Any transformation involves endurance and risk, but I hope we can do it better and faster on the smaller platform we offer. There is every reason to fight for their future. "

But many others believe that pure financial gain lies behind his endurance.

He stands to realize a huge tax advantage if he keeps Sears alive by using the company's year of net operating losses to offset future taxable income if one of the other companies takes over, says David Tawil, president and co-founder of Maglan Capital which follows distressed companies. Tawil and others also believe Lampert will buy the company, so that as sole shareholder he can control the liquidation of the remaining assets.

Some will argue that he has done it all by selling some of Sears most valued brands as craftsmen. The company also spun off Lands End. ESL has maintained that all shareholders in Sears benefited from these movements because it injected liquidity into the business.

Four years ago, the company created a real estate investment faith to recover revenue from the properties. It sold and leased back more than 200 properties to REIT, where Lampert is a significant stake. ESL said Sears received an instant $ 2.7 billion inflow from these transactions.

"This company has been insolvent for years, except he has played these games," said Steve Dennis, a strategic retailer who held various leadership positions in Sears for 12 years until 2003.

If Sears goes to the right liquidation, Lampert would be vulnerable to any legal claims arising from agreements he previously made to sell any of the company's assets, another reason why he may be trying to evade that result, according to H. Jeffrey Schwartz, principal of McKool Smith PC law firm, representing several Sears vendors.

He wanted to be a fair game, said Schwartz.

Many of the reseller's unsecured creditors, which include vendors and landlords, push for liquidation because they believe Sears is more dead than alive. They also believe that there is value creation for Lampert, says David Wander, a lawyer at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, who represents two Sears suppliers.

At the end of December, ESL said that creditors have no reason to sue, and notes that the Hedge Fund has expanded more than $ 2.4 billion in secured funding approved by Sears & # 39; Board and an Independent Committee. board members that enable the company to continue the business.

Sears & # 39; Destiny has twisted in the wind for many years, but since its bankruptcy filing, its death has emerged imminent. In the peaks in 2012, the stores were numbered 4,000, far from the under 700 stores and 68,000 workers who had it from October.

Suppliers who kept Sears in a strict bond this year are now reluctant to continue doing business with It leaving its physical stores with only shelves and giving consumers little reason to enter. The company has not had a profitable year since 2010 and has had 11 straight years with annual sales drops.

Lampert, who has no formal background in retail, has been criticized for slashing expenses and not investing in stores. Dennis says that Lampert never had a convincing vision for Sears as a business or showed any interest in preserving jobs throughout his tenure.

The 56-year-old billionaire stays out of the public eye for the most part, rarely visits the company's stores or even his headquarters apart from annual board meetings, according to a former Sears leader Mark Cohen, who is now director of detail studies at Columbia Business School.

"He has no physical and personal connection to the company in every conventional sense," Cohen said. "He rules videoconference."

Many analysts believe that even though Lampert is ruling on Monday's auction, Sears will not have much of a future and will probably linger together for just one year.

However, Lampert still has much more to gain.

"He has really created a very difficult web of complexity in terms of business," said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail. "He's in a much better position to get something out of this than any other party."

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