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Sears' future is still in doubt a year after bankruptcy filing

CNN logo CNN 10/15/2019 By Chris Isidore, CNN Business
a person standing in front of a building: A closing Sears store in Cambridge, Massachusetts© David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images A closing Sears store in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Sears filed for bankruptcy a year ago today. And while the company used the process to shed debt, get out of store leases it didn't want and dodge liquidation, the last 12 months have hardly been a success.

And there are signs that the store's future may be in greater doubt than when it emerged from Chapter 11 in February.

One of them is a rash of store closings that was not in the company's plans.

At the time it exited bankruptcy there were more than 400 Sears and Kmart stores, down from about 1,000 a year earlier. Company plans called for modest additional closings of 30 of 191 remaining Kmarts by the end of this year. The store count for Sears locations was expected to remain at 231.

But the additional store closings have gone much deeper than expected. In August it announced plans to shutter another 21 Sears stores and five Kmarts. Since then there have been numerous reports, unchallenged by company spokespeople, that it would close more than 100 additional stores.

That could be a sign of weaker-than-expected sales, the difficulty of reaching deals with vendors to provide inventory, or some combination of both. Sears would not comment on specific reasons for the closings.

But the starkest sign of doubt about the company's future is that it has been without a CEO for the last 12 months.

Eddie Lampert, Sears' majority owner, gave up his CEO title on the day of the bankruptcy filing, retaining the chairman position. He planned to buy the remaining viable assets of the company in a bankruptcy auction, but he couldn't be CEO during that auction process.

He and his lawyers promised the bankruptcy judge that Sears would find a top-flight CEO to guide the company's turnaround if it was allowed to emerge from bankruptcy, rather than be forced to liquidate, as many of its creditors advocated But eight months after Lampert completed the purchase, he has yet to find anyone to lead the company. It's now being run by a committee of other top Sears executives.

"It's a tough job to fill," said Greg Portell, lead partner for the consumer and retail practice at consultant A.T. Kearney. "It takes a certain type of executive to want that role and to feel confident that they'll emerge afterward with a great story. And it's the same profile every other retailer is looking for."

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Sears insists it has made progress since emerging from bankruptcy, including refinancing of some of its debt. 

"Our new real estate term loan provides us with a far more cost effective and flexible capital structure that will allow us to continue to invest in the growth of Sears, Kmart, our leading service offerings and the Shop Your Way rewards program," said a statement from Lampert's hedge fund, which owns Sears. "Our ability to secure financing on these terms demonstrates the confidence of our financial partners and helps position us for future success."

It also announced a deal to purchase a chain of smaller, franchise-owned stores, known as Sears Hometown, that it spun off from the company. That deal, which has yet to close, is consistent with plans to change many of its stores to smaller footprint locations emphasizing appliances, lawn and garden, tools and other hard goods.

Those moves only feed into the view that Lampert was interested in Sears more for its real estate assets than its retail prowess.

"The conversation for multiple years has been about financial instruments and real estate, not how to run a retailer," said Portell.

The fact that Sears has emerged from bankruptcy doesn't guarantee that it can survive long-term. Recent history is full of retailers that emerged from Chapter 11 only to quickly file a second time, ending up in liquidation. RadioShack, Payless Shoes and American Apparel all followed that path to closure.

Portell said it's too soon to say if Sears will follow those retail casualties. But he agrees it will be tough to avoid that outcome.

"You hope they eventually get to the size that allows them to operate as a competitive retailer," he said. "But they still have a lot of operational challenges and financial constraints that will make it difficult for the management team there."

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